Antone’s Records and Tapes


Harmonica player James Cotton has a reputation as an exhilarating live performer whose high-energy, boogie-laden blues has never been accurately captured on record. During the mid-70s, he carried what was arguably the tightest working blues band of its day–featuring Matt “Guitar” Murphy on lead guitar, Charles Calmese on bass, pianist Mike Zaitchik, and drummer Kennard Johnson. This unit charged through traditional blues, contemporary funk, and even swing jazz standards with unmatched proficiency and drive. But his recorded efforts did little justice to either his own leather-lunged harmonica technique or the band’s virtuosity.

Especially frustrating was the live recording that should have put Cotton over the top: an atrociously produced double LP on Buddah in 1976 that managed to drain most of the emotion from one of his most thrilling performances, a three-night stand at Connecticut’s Shaboo Inn. I was lucky enough to attend, and the performance bore no resemblance to the dull record that resulted.

In recent years, prevailing opinion has been that Cotton has undergone something of a decline. His voice, never the strongest, has deteriorated; it’s now little more than a hoarse croak most of the time. And the bands he’s fronted lately have been heavy on rock-oriented boogie and light on the subtleties of blues tradition. Still, he continues to show enough of the old blues fire in his performances that an LP like this one was eagerly anticipated. Many thought that this effort, which teams him up with Muddy Waters’s last, great rhythm section (pianist Pinetop Perkins, bassist Calvin Jones, and drummer Willie Smith) and his own old compatriots Matt Murphy and Luther Tucker on guitar, was his best chance in years to showcase his true talents.

As it turns out, the LP illustrates both the strengths and the weaknesses of Cotton’s current work. It was recorded at Antone’s, a blues bar in Austin, Texas, that’s rapidly becoming a nationally known venue–almost like Birdland in New York and the Blackhawk in San Francisco were to jazz fans in the 1950s and ’60s. Made up mainly of blues standards that Cotton interprets in his usual open-throttle roar, it’s the kind of party album that the blues ‘n’ boogie crowd never seems to tire of.

It sustains less interest for those who love the more introspective, emotionally diverse elements of the music. The harp screams through most of the tunes in an unsubtle, rough approximation of Cotton’s mentor, Sonny Boy Williamson (Rice Miller). Though it’s enjoyable enough in its raucous, energetic enthusiasm, Cotton tends to repeat certain crowd-pleasing phrases and gimmicks. This can be great entertainment in the sweaty enthusiasm of the moment but becomes monotonous when translated onto vinyl. In all the years he spent with Sonny Boy Williamson, Cotton apparently absorbed little of the rhythmic subtlety and sly wit that made Williamson a seminal figure in the history of blues harmonica.

Still, with a band like this, it’s almost impossible to be boring. The opening cut, “Blow Wind,” is one of Cotton’s longtime standards, and he sings it in a voice as strong as any he’s summoned in recent years–although it lacks the shouting emotion of his singing in the mid-70s. The two guest guitarists immediately assert on this first cut their musical personalities: Murphy’s solo is, as usual, a jaw-dropping display of technical proficiency. It contrasts nicely with Tucker’s rawer, more traditional Chicago-style approach. Tucker intersperses lightly clustered flurries with traditional Delta-style walking patterns, sometimes evoking the late Eddie Taylor in his understated emotion. He’s also capable, however, of some remarkable blues fire, and the way he combines his obvious love of tradltion with high-velocity flights of fancy is one of the most distinguishing features of his playing on this album.

The unit kicks into full gear on “It Ain’t Right,” a romping, rollicking blues number written by another harmonica master, Little Walter Jacobs. The band settles into a dancing, propulsive groove that allows Cotton to pour his full energy into his blowing and singing. His voice is much more expressive on this tune than elsewhere, and his harp cuts through the jaunty tempo with its usual raucous grittiness.

The finest moments on this disc are those that feature Murphy and Tucker. Murphy’s solo on “It Ain’t Right” skitters up and down the fretboard with a speed that would put Johnny Winter to shame and an unsurpassed musicianship. This LP is one of the best chances Murphy has had in years to really cut loose on record, and he makes the most of it. Tucker is more basic in his approach. He employs a deceptively simple set of improvisational ideas–but with an underlying subtlety that accentuates his eloquent blues sensibility and adds a welcome bit of introspection to this album’s party exuberance. Pushed along by Perkins, Jones, and Smith, the two guitarists blend into a savory mix of classic Chicago-style blues grit and sophisticated improvisation in the T-Bone Walker mold.

There is a drawback, however, to surrounding Cotton with a crew of top-flight traditionalists. They can’t challenge him with new ideas, or augment his repetitious boogie-shuffle with funk or with ballads–like the lovely “Goodbye My Lady,” which was a highlight of Cotton’s days with the Murphy-Zaitchik-Calmese band. Selections like “Gone to Main Street” and “Oh Baby,” could have come from any Cotton performance of the past 15 years, and while they are good examples of the exuberance Cotton brings to all of his material, they bring a sameness that’s offset only by the improvisational expertise of the guest guitarists.

Only on “Juke” does Cotton venture into slightly more subtle and melodic playing. Little Walter’s old trademark number is a requirement in any blues harmonica player’s repertoire, much as “Body and Soul” became obligatory for jazz tenor players after Coleman Hawkins’s classic 1939 version. Here Cotton’s lines are more supple and thoughtful than on the rest of the LP. Even though his tone and phrasing remain solidly in the usual boogie-party vein, he demonstrates that he’s capable of more versatility than he usually chooses to show. Why he is unable or unwilling to sustain it over an entire performance or record is one of the more frustrating mysteries in contemporary blues.

After a perfunctory run-through of “Hoochie Coochie Man,” one of the most tired of all blues war-horses, the LP ends with two fine cuts. Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Eyesight to the Blind” is a blues masterpiece, and Cotton sings it with some of the same clipped phrasing that distinguished Sonny Boy’s vocal technique. Murphy starts off with shimmering, bluesy chording and culminates with some surprisingly raunchy lead work before Tucker cuts in with a fiery solo straight out of Chicago’s west side. Cotton’s harp work employs Sonny Boy’s trademark three-note vamp to good effect–not repeating it endlessly as he’s been known to do on other Sonny Boy tunes. And Perkins finally gets a chance to contribute a tasteful, sparsely articulated solo, lending a bit of Delta tradition to the hard-driving boogie of this interpretation.

The final cut, an update of Cotton’s old signature tune “Midnight Creeper,” is one of the LPs most pleasant surprises. This is Cotton’s live-performance tour de force, the one that cemented his reputation as a vein-popping, wild-eyed harmonica madman back in the days when he’d start his show with a somersault across the stage and be drenched in sweat by the time he finished his second chorus. It’s a great crowd-pleasing culmination to a live performance, but on several recorded versions it’s sounded repetitious and even sloppy. Here Cotton employs more subtlety than usual, with some musical ideas interspersed between the inevitable histrionic bouts. Toward the end, Murphy unfurls his awe-inspiring “spidering” technique, firing off furious flurries from the lowest bass registers through his screaming treble with a speed and accuracy that nearly defy comprehension.

Moments like this, with the band settled into a solid shuffle boogie, Cotton blowing with joyful abandon, Murphy or Tucker soaring eloquently over the top, make this album more than the run-of-the-mill party record it could easily have been. It also falls short of its potential–the lineup featured here could, in the right setting, make a record as brilliant as any we’ve heard in 15 or 20 years.

This LP provides an accurate record of the music James Cotton is making these days, but it also offers a tantalizing glimpse of what he and a solid blues backing could create, given the time and the motivation to build the band into a regular working unit. There’s enough blues genius in this aggregation to sustain Cotton through many years of musically satisfying and exciting work, if only he’d choose to abandon his current barroom boogie approach and return to the rich tradition in which he came up. I wouldn’t bet the store that he’ll do it, but some cuts on this record give us a good idea of what might result if he did.