[6 January 2010]
First things first – the music compiled on this disc is back porch, summertime music, contrary to its fall release date. That’s not to say that it can only be enjoyed while sweating, but the vibe here isn’t suited to shivering. These may be recreations of classic 1930s Mississippi blues songs – music created in darker times – but the sunny production turns this collection into a feelgood jam. Things About Comin’ My Way: A Tribute to the Music of The Mississippi Sheiks contains a few gems scattered throughout its expansive 17-track presentation.
The music of The Mississippi Sheiks, a group that only lasted five years but left an immense body of work, has been given treatment by countless artists spanning multiple generations. Perhaps their most recognizable tune, “Sittin’ on Top of the World” has been covered by Bob Dylan, Ray Charles, the Grateful Dead, Chet Atkins, Willie Nelson, Bob Wills, Big Bill Broonzy, Carl Perkins, Doc Watson, Van Morrison, and, even more recently, Jack White. Muddy Waters himself, who recorded some of the dirtiest blues ever laid to tape, claimed to have walked 10 miles to see them play: “they was high-time…makin’ them good records, man”.
The sons of slaves, the Chatmon Brothers, along with Walter Vinson, were notorious for their music that revved up audiences in venues all across the country. According to the well-written and thorough liner notes, the Mississippi Sheiks’ songs “took a suffering generation on a ride through a universe populated with characters that walked the razor’s edge between sin and redemption, grace and depravity”. With tales of their fiery vocals and gutbucket guitar leaving audiences in a frenzy in Mississippi juke houses, one can only imagine what the Sheiks’ gigs must have been like.
While few tracks on Things About Comin’ My Way breeze by more than they burn, and three slow numbers placed in the middle of the disc make a break in the pace that’s slightly jarring, there’s some outstanding playing on this disc that balances well with less remarkable material. The opening guitar lick on the title track lifts the melody to “Sittin’ On Top of the World”, as does the tune itself, sung by Vancouver-based singer-songwriter Ndidi Onukwulu, with strong but fluttery vocals.The Carolina Chocolate Drops’ guitar-n-fiddle-n-banjo take on “Sittin’” itself eases along as joyfully as a good porch swing.
Danny Barnes’ twangy drawl meshes well with Jeanne Tolmie’s harmony vocals on “Too Long”. His country-jazz scat singing, played in unison with his banjo licks, is a pure joy. Kelly Joe Phelps’ unusual, slightly dissonant chording and fluid fretwork on the national guitar is haunting on “Livin’ In a Strain”, providing a nice follow-up to Madeleine Peyroux’s lazy shuffle through “Please Baby”. Producer Steve Dawson’s slide guitar work on “Lonely One in This Town” is quite tasty, as is the Hammond organ work by Wayne Horvitz.
The use of a session band on several tracks, while making for a consistent sound to back up the vocalists, sounds just like what it is: a session band with a singer, lacking the well-seasoned group interplay and musical dialogue that can only be gained through hours of rehearsals and gigs together. It’s not a total miss – the best blues often comes from spontaneous moments – but some of Things About Comin’ My Way feels too polished, too planned, and not raw enough.
Doug Heselgrave’s essay in the liner notes states, “there aren’t many CDs like this one being recorded today. Life is short, and like the song says you may only be ‘sitting on top of the world’ for a moment”. This is true. More people do need to discover and re-discover this music. Things About Comin’ My Way is a fine place to start, but there’s so much more to it than this.