Fear not, true believers, Mr. Bishop isn’t trying to reinvent the blues in, say, the same manner that Run the Jewels has challenged hip-hop traditions. Nor is he trying to appeal to younger listeners by radically changing his sound, attitude, or appearance…he’s still the same fun lovin’, happy-go-lucky Elvin that hundreds of thousands of fans around the world have come to love and respect as a sincere, talented Americana traditionalist.
Elvin Bishop’s Big Fun Trio
No, what Bishop has done with Elvin Bishop’s Big Fun Trio is to alter the angle at which he approaches these songs. As he says in the album’s liner notes, he and a couple of buddies began jamming in the studio and it sounded so good and they were having such a good time that the ‘Big Fun Trio’ was formed with guitarist Bishop, singer and percussionist Willy Jordan, and pianist and guitarist Bob Welsh. The proof is in the grooves, as they say, and the album-opening “Keep On Rollin’” is a great example. A rollicking, humorous, mostly-spoken piece with Elvin and Willy trading verbal jabs, Welsh’s New Orleans-flavored piano runs are paired with a funky, foot-shuffling rhythm and Bishop’s jagged fretwork.
The fun continues with the scorching “Honey Babe,” a rockabilly-tinged romp that offers up some of Bishop’s finest guitar pickin’ and great tone. A solid reinvention of a song that originally appeared on Bishop’s 1974 album Let It Flow, it’s a fine showcase for the guitarist’s often-underrated talents. Jordan takes the microphone for the Chicago blues-styled rave-up “It’s You Baby,” his soulful vocals riding high atop Welsh’s juke-joint piano-pounding and guest Kim Wilson’s raging harp play. Bishop fills in with some red-hot licks, Jordan’s vox reaching Little Richard level intensity in a great performance that is certain to stomp listeners into submission in a club setting.
Bishop brings in another friend, harp wizard and Chicago blues legend Rick Estrin to blow some notes on the rockin’ “Delta Lowdown,” a spry instrumental that showcases Estrin’s immense skills and Welsh’s keyboard mastery. A cover of the Bobby Womack gem “It’s All Over Now” offers up Jordan’s lively vocals and a raucous, rhythmic arrangement that showcases Bishop’s stinging six-string solos while Bishop’s rootsy sense of humor shines on the hilarious story-song “That’s What I’m Talkin’ About” as he and Jordan swap culinary-obsessed verses over a Southern-fried soundtrack. Friend and compatriot Charlie Musselwhite joins in on the biographical “100 Years of Blues,” a rowdy, low-slung history of the music that name-checks legends like Sonny Boy Williamson and Muddy Waters while Charlie blasts some mean harp and Bishop lays out some choice git licks above the shufflin’ rhythm.
The Reverend’s Bottom Line
Working in a stripped-down trio format, the song shorn of everything but the essence of the performance, what’s left is pure salt-of-the-earth roots ‘n’ blues. Bishop always sounds like he’s having fun in the studio, but with Elvin Bishop’s Big Fun Trio, the three musicians play with reckless abandon, reveling in the sheer joy of making music. Bishop could have begun phoning it in years ago and fans would still enjoy his immense talents and charisma; that he is still looking for new ways to excite himself and his bandmates musically is both the key to Bishop’s longevity and a testament to the heart and soul that he brings to every performance. Grade: B+ (Alligator Records, released February 10, 2017)
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