The Mississippi Sheiks were one of the most popular performing and recording acts ever to come out of the Mississippi Delta. Although generally thought of by modern listeners as “blues” artists, in their 1930’s heyday they recorded a variety of music ranging from fiddle tunes, nominally folk and country songs from both black and white traditions, pop songs of the day, older ragtime and humorous songs, as well as blues, plus anything else people wanted to hear. The band was a somewhat loose assemblage centered around the Chatmon Brothers, including fiddler Lonnie Chatmon, guitarist/singers Sam Chatmon (whose later solo career continued well into the 1970’s) and Bo Chatmon (who, as Bo Carter, enjoyed solo success with a string of double-entendre hits), plus a key non-brother, singer-songwriter Walter Vinson.
It would be untrue to say the Sheiks are now forgotten, as they still have a strong, faithful following, but neither are they as well-known as they deserve to be. Enter guitarist Steve Dawson, who produced a CD of modern-day artists recording their own versions of the Sheiks repertoire, to be followed by two concerts and this DVD, which is derived from those concerts. While I’ve never heard the CD, a quick check of Amazon shows that the lineups of the artists appearing on the CD and DVD overlap, but are considerably different. No matter - this concert DVD holds up extremely well, even without the likes of Bruce Cockburn or the Carolina Chocolate Drops (who appeared on the CD).
The disc opens with a bit of background about the Sheiks as well as on the organization of the concerts. The concert is built around a carefully chosen house combo of musicians from the Seattle/Vancouver area, who are joined by an impressive cast of featured celebrity singer-musicians from both sides of the US/Canada border. Dawson talks about the haste with which the rehearsals were put together, which contributes to the informality of the proceedings. One might expect from this that there would be a certain level of sloppiness in the music, but indeed there is very little, and what small bits of uncoordination there may be are easily overlooked.
Things get under way with a reading by actor/bluesman Jim Byrnes from liner notes written by Sam Chatmon back in the 1970’s, as the house band plays behind him. Throughout the set, the band by no means attempts to slavishly recapture the sound, style, or fully-acoustic arrangements of the Sheiks. There are electric guitars, keyboards, acoustic bass, drums, and an occasional touch of brass, as well as some decidedly modern funk and New Orleans rhythms going on. Purists may object, but there really is no reason these old favorite songs need to live solely in the past.
Oh Susanna, a slightly strident American-born, Canadian-based singer who is new to me, does “Things About Comin’ My Way,” a song which shares its melody line with the Sheiks’ most influential song, “Sitting on Top of the World” (a song covered by Bob Wills, Howlin’ Wolf, Cream, Willie Nelson, among countless others). The Sojourners, a vocal trio, add touches of quartet-style gospel and swing to “Sweet Maggie”, the chorus of which is essentially “Corrine Corrina”. Geoff Muldaur offers “Poor Boy”, with some sweet fiddling by Daniel Lapp in the Lonnie Chatmon tradition. Despite an instrumentation which includes accordion, mandolin, and Muldaur’s banjo, this one really captures the essence of the Sheiks.
Bob Brozman, on National steel guitar, plays a down-and-dirty “Church Bell Blues”, with some gritty fiddling by Lapp and nice interaction between Brozman and Dawson on the instrumental break. Singer-pianist Robin Holcomb, takes one of my personal favorite Sheiks’ songs, “I’ve Got Blood In My Eyes For You”, and totally transforms it into a harmonically adventurous jazz narrative a la Nina Simone (not necessarily an exact parallel, but it’s the best familiar-name approximation I can come up with). Only the lyrics remain intact. It’s an interesting recasting, to be sure, and one which is beginning to grow on me now that the initial shock has worn off. (Holcomb’s husband, Wayne Horvitz, perhaps best known in jazz circles, is the versatile keyboardist for the concert’s house band.) Alvin Youngblood Hart sings a soulful version of “Livin’ In a Strain”, backing himself with some subtle, tasty lap steel licks. Dave Alvin, along with singer Christy McWilson, Brozman, Lapp, and Dawson, tweaks the concert’s format only slightly with a song from Bo Carter’s solo repertoire (“Who’s Been Here”). Though Alvin is generally thought of as a roots-rocker, fans may not be at all surprised that this may be the most traditional-folk performance in the set, and a highly ingratiating one at that.
If there could be said to be one artist on the disc who stands out a slight cut above the rest, it might be John Hammond, one of the giants of the 1960’s blues revival and still going strong. He blows some solid blues harp on Colin James’ easy-going version of “Keep On Tryin’”, done in the low-key, loping rhythm the Sheiks did so well, then returns to accompany Jim Byrnes. Hammond then gets his own spot for a typically fine performance of “Kind Treatment.” If there could be said to be a failure on the disc, it would be Van Dyke Parks’ version of “It’s Backfirin’ Now”. Parks is not someone one would expect to hear in this context in the first place, but he IS from Mississippi and a Sheiks’ admirer. Alas, this isn’t quite enough. With his barrelhouse piano, coupled with Lapp’s cornet, he gets a bit of a Dr. John groove going, but his voice simply does not have enough grit in it to make his valiant attempt a successful one.
But this is the only misstep in a solid set of tunes and performances. The entire lineup assembles at the end for a surprisingly frisky version of “Sitting On Top of the World”, bringing the concert and the DVD to an appropriately rousing conclusion.
The 85-minute disc has no extra features, and none are necessary.