cephas and wiggins: Shoulder to Shoulder

Melodic Virginian blues in the old style, broadened in repertoire, but everything personal, nothing routine.

Cephas & Wiggins

Shoulder to Shoulder

Label: Alligator
US Release Date: 2006-06-27
UK Release Date: 2006-07-10

John Cephas has a light and gentle voice, and a slightly generalised version of the guitar style associated with the East Coast states, the finger-picking learned when growing up in Bowling Green, Virginia, and stylistic elements and repertoire deepened and learned listening to the recorded legacy.

Phil Wiggins is in his early fifties and roughly a quarter of a century younger, with a style on Hohner marine band harmonica that is genuinely idiomatic to blues, but developed from a melodic approach growing out of the blues into something very satisfactory. On the first and third titles of their new CD, Cephas, who takes all the vocals, brings in the line about "cherry red" that owes much of its circulation to Big Joe Turner. Stylistically, the music is an extension of East Coast, or more or less Piedmont Blues of the gentler sort, still with a basis of its original character, but with things picked up from recordings of bluesmen from other areas. There's still a complete stylistic integrity. No imitations.

The composer credit to "James" for "Catfish Blues" (track three) certainly accords with the elements of Skip James' Bentonia, Mississippi, guitar style picked up by Cephas, although the music -- as ever with him -- is certainly personalised. Between the two titles, the pair are accompanied on piano by Ann Rabson, certainly on "Susie Q" (credited to Williamson), providing a drive possibly beyond Cephas' never biting Virginia guitar style. Cephas and Wiggins worked with the East Coast blues pianist Wilbert 'Big Chief' Ellis before his death, and this might be one reason why they use a pianist on quite a number of titles.

The guitar part on the duo song "All I've Got Is Them Blues" is in Gary Davis style, co-composed by 'Cephas and Diamond' and a songster item. "Dirt Road", credited to Patton, has more of Ms. Rabson's 1940s blues and boogie piano, and the harmonica player gets some time. John Estes' "Broke and Hungry" starts with suggestions of Piedmont guitar, but the performance is an intriguing one, with clear references to the vocally very different performance recorded by Estes seventy-five years before. Ms. Rabson can't manage the specialised, indeed unique, doomy piano playing of Jab Jones on the original masterpiece, but she certainly echoes some of its harmonic novelties with great ingenuity. The rhythmic figure to which Wiggins comes back is wholly novel, and Cephas certainly also has in mind the mandolin playing of the great Yank Rachell with Estes. I suppose this has to be called a transcription of the original's unique characteristics.

Unlike the original "Three Ball Blues" of Blind Boy Fuller, Cephas' version features no harmonica accompaniment. No attempt is made to emulate Sonny Terry's desolate sound when Fuller sang of things so desperate he might even have to pawn his (I can hardly bring myself to say it) guitar (wail!).

"Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" is a songster sort of item founded on the Depression-era pop-song phrase. The last three titles also have piano, two-handed but never thundering above the soft voice of Cephas. Ms. Rabson is complemented by Andrew Volpe's bass on two of the tracks, and replaced by the roughly similar Daryl Davis (with a powerful range of traditional barrelhouse blues licks) on the last. That is a "Walking Blues" poached and renamed and opened with a short guitar quote from Robert Johnson. Unlike the rest of the set, it's a live concert item, and reminds me to mention Wiggins's competence on harmonica. A more out and out workout than anything preceding, it's a splendid climax to a nice and imaginatively resourceful set.






The Dance of Male Forms in Denis' 'Beau travail'

Claire Denis' masterwork of cinematic poetry, Beau travail, is a cinematic ballet that tracks through tone and style the sublimation of violent masculine complexes into the silent convulsions of male angst.


The Cradle's 'Laughing in My Sleep' Is an Off-kilter Reflection of Musical Curiosity

The Cradle's Paco Cathcart has curated a thoughtfully multifarious album. Laughing in My Sleep is an impressive collection of 21 tracks, each unapologetic in their rejection of expectations.


Tobin Sprout Goes Americana on 'Empty Horses'

During the heyday of Guided By Voices, Tobin Sprout wasn't afraid to be absurd amongst all that fuzz. Sprout's new album, Empty Horses, is not the Tobin Sprout we know.


'All In: The Fight for Democracy' Spotlights America's Current Voting Restrictions as Jim Crow 2.0

Featuring an ebullient and combative Stacey Abrams, All In: The Fight for Democracy shows just how determined anti-democratic forces are to ensure that certain groups don't get access to the voting booth.


'Transgender Street Legend Vol. 2' Finds Left at London "At My Peak and Still Rising"

"[Pandemic lockdown] has been a detriment to many people's mental health," notes Nat Puff (aka Left at London) around her incendiary, politically-charged new album, "but goddamn it if I haven't been making some bops here and there!"


Daniel Romano's 'How Ill Thy World Is Ordered' Is His Ninth LP of 2020 and It's Glorious

No, this is isn't a typo. Daniel Romano's How Ill Thy World Is Ordered is his ninth full-length release of 2020, and it's a genre-busting thrill ride.


The Masonic Travelers Offer Stirring Rendition of "Rock My Soul" (premiere)

The Last Shall Be First: the JCR Records Story, Volume 1 captures the sacred soul of Memphis in the 1970s and features a wide range of largely forgotten artists waiting to be rediscovered. Hear the Masonic Travelers "Rock My Soul".


GLVES Creates Mesmerizing Dark Folktronica on "Heal Me"

Australian First Nations singer-songwriter GLVES creates dense, deep, and darkish electropop that mesmerizes with its blend of electronics and native sounds on "Heal Me".


Otis Junior and Dr. Dundiff Tells Us "When It's Sweet" It's So Sweet

Neo-soul singer Otis Junior teams with fellow Kentuckian Dr. Dundiff and his hip-hop beats for the silky, groovy "When It's Sweet".


Lars and the Magic Mountain's "Invincible" Is a Shoegazey, Dreamy Delight (premiere)

Dutch space pop/psychedelic band Lars and the Magic Mountain share the dreamy and gorgeous "Invincible".


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" Wryly Looks at Lost Love (premiere + interview)

Singer-songwriter Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" is a less a flat-earther's anthem and more a wry examination of heartache.


Big Little Lions' "Distant Air" Is a Powerful Folk-Anthem (premiere)

Folk-pop's Big Little Lions create a powerful anthem with "Distant Air", a song full of sophisticated pop hooks, smart dynamics, and killer choruses.


The Flat Five Invite You to "Look at the Birdy" (premiere)

Chicago's the Flat Five deliver an exciting new single that exemplifies what some have called "twisted sunshine vocal pop".


Brian Bromberg Pays Tribute to Hendrix With "Jimi" (premiere + interview)

Bass giant Brian Bromberg revisits his 2012 tribute to Jimi Hendrix 50 years after his passing, and reflects on the impact Hendrix's music has had on generations.

Jedd Beaudoin

Shirley Collins' ​'Heart's Ease'​ Affirms Her Musical Prowess

Shirley Collins' Heart's Ease makes it apparent these songs do not belong to her as they are ownerless. Collins is the conveyor of their power while ensuring the music maintains cultural importance.


Ignorance, Fear, and Democracy in America

Anti-intellectualism in America is, sadly, older than the nation itself. A new collection of Richard Hofstadter's work from Library of America traces the history of ideas and cultural currents in American society and politics.

By the Book

Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto (excerpt)

Just as big tech leads world in data for profit, the US government can produce data for the public good, sans the bureaucracy. This excerpt of Julia Lane's Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto will whet your appetite for disruptive change in data management, which is critical for democracy's survival.

Julia Lane

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.