& 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
STLBluesometer rating 3 out
& Hungry Records