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Cephas & Wiggins, Shoulder to ShoulderCephas & Wiggins, Shoulder to Shoulder

Poor Cephas & Wiggins. They are in the unfortunate position of being the second country blues act I’ve listened to today. The first was the legendary Henry Townsend, who passed away last night at the age of 96. Henry, of course, was always a tough act to follow. But on the morning following his death, his shadow seems to loom even larger.

It’s hard not to compare the artists, especially when heard in quick succession of one another. On their newest CD, Shoulder to Shoulder, Cephas & Wiggins perform a solid mix of originals and traditionals. The performances, like the songs, are solid. So is the production.

Why then does it seem like something is missing?

Perhaps it is the very “solidness” of the proceedings. There is no doubt this is a very pleasant listen. John Cephas is a skilled guitarist and warm singer. Phil Wiggins is an accomplished harmonica player who never fails to find a comfy pocket from which to blow.

The problem is that country blues were never meant to be merely pleasant. Certainly, Henry Townsend never contented himself to write blues that simply pleased his listeners. When Henry sang and played, he touched his audience; drew them in; surprised them; and sometimes stunned them.

On Shoulder to Shoulder, there are few surprises and certainly nothing to stun listeners. Nevertheless there are some beautiful moments on the disc. Cephas’ vocals on “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” are genuinely touching while Wiggins blows relaxed campfire harp. “Broke & Hungry,” a traditional track performed here using the lyrics of Sleepy John Estes is transformed from a desperate, pleading blues into a joyous Piedmont rag with nice accompaniment by Ann Rabson. Another highlight of the disc comes from a surprising source – the perennial “Catfish Blues.” Like “Stormy Monday” and “Sweet Home Chicago,” “Catfish” has been played for so long and by so many blues performers, that it long ago lost much of its fire. Yet
Cephas & Wiggins manage to breathe a little life into the chestnut through an
interesting arrangement that borrows from Skip James but lopes along at its own pace.

One can only wish there were more such moments when Cephas & Wiggins would
make the material theirs and theirs alone. With the loss of a giant like Henry Townsend, it seems there are few left who are able to do so with every performance.

STLBluesometer rating 3 out of 5.

Jeff Konkel
Broke & Hungry Records
The STLBluesometer

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