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Willie Big Eyes Smith: Way Back

Robert R. Calder

He's not Muddy Waters, but a second line performer still performing, and people could be excused for supposing this standard of blues album impossible nowadays. But here 'tis!

Willie 'Big Eyes' Smith

Way Back

Label: Hightone
US Release Date: 2006-05-09
UK Release Date: 2006-05-15

Willie Smith records are not uncommon, as he played drums on a lot of classic Chicago blues for the Chess label. He played harmonica on a famous Bo Diddley recording, too, which should be said in case anybody supposes he's a drummer turned musician. Drummers frequently are musicians -- good ones are -- and some of them are pretty good on melody instruments, too. Big Eyes switched to make a living, a living making good music better.

If he wasn't James Cotton, well, Cotton sits in on a couple of items, as good as ever on "I Don't Trust You, Man". I'm not sure I'd be happier with a Cotton CD than with this one, either; I always preferred Cotton's blues harp to most other things he did. But I'm not at all unhappy with the harmonica playing on "Read Way Back" here, one of only two of the 11 titles on which Pinetop Perkins isn't on piano.

Smith's harmonica playing is of the sort which used to be spoken of as exhibiting the "zinc bath" effect, with a curious and far from objectionable metallic-echoey resonance, though here a measure of microphone distortion roughens it.

The squeakier, more squeezed sound of Jimmy Reed's harmonica opens "If You Don't Believe I'm Leaving", a decent performance. Reed got the effect with his lips, since he also played guitar; Cotton alternates between that and lower register sounds using the hands, and in fact does other nice things on this stomping title, growls and squeals. The band, as I should have said earlier, is uniformly tight. Kenny "Beady Eyes" Smith drums well, and Big Eyes does so very nicely on two titles where Bob Corritore takes over suck-and-blow duties. "Lowdown Blues" is especially nice, with Johnny Rapp on guitar. Perkins, though just in accompaniment, has an added spark maybe from the leader's drumming.

Big Eyes was never going to rival Muddy Waters or Howlin' Wolf as a singer, but he's decent enough even if there seems some prospect of his becoming unduly hoarse after singing a set and a half. He sounds fairly youthful, too, and "Woman's World", based on a Howlin' Wolf riff, has distinguished harmonica playing and a wonderful band texture. The ancient Prestige album by a classic Muddy Waters band (Cotton and Otis Spann singing, for the same contractual reasons which renamed Muddy "Dirty Rivers" to earn a sideman fee), never reached the standard sustained here. It also didn't have Muddy-style guitar to the standard Bob Margolin achieves guesting on "Blues and Trouble" here. And Pinetop Perkins can't have played better than he does here on the closer, "Eye to Eye", with Frank Krakowski and Johnny Rapp on guitars, and a hair-raising intro from Big Eyes' harmonica. The choice of a Jimmy Reed number as an opener wasn't the very best idea, as Big Eyes sounds a bit constricted vocally by reminiscence of Reed. No other trivial cavils about this very decent achievement. It got better!


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