Friday, November 24, 2023

Archive Review: James Cotton's Cotton Mouth Man (2013)

There are few in the annals of blues music that stand as tall as “Mr. Superharp,” James Cotton, the gifted singer and harmonica wizard that managed to fill the hole left by Little Walter and Junior Wells in Muddy Water’s late 1950s band. Cotton spent better than a decade blasting out his powerful, but nuanced harp alongside the fellow Chicago blues legend, before setting out on his own to build a Hall of Fame quality legacy of his own. Solo albums like 1974’s 100% Cotton and 1984’s High Compression may have earned Cotton a fair amount of acclaim, but it was Harp Attack!, his 1990 collaboration with Junior Wells, Carey Bell, and Billy Branch that cemented Cotton’s reputation as one of the biggest, baddest harp players on any side of Chicago.    

Cotton’s 2010 album Giant – his first in six years – was heralded as a return to form for the Chicago blues legend, and while his harp playing remained strong, Cotton’s once formidable voice has worn down with time. As such, guitarist Slim Allen handled the lion’s share of vocals on Giant, and the results just weren’t as satisfying as one may have liked. For Cotton Mouth Man, the bluesman’s quick follow-up to Giant, Cotton brought in a few guests like Ruthie Foster and Gregg Allman to sing a song, but most of the vocal chores are left up to the talented Darrell Nulisch from Cotton’s touring band, whose soulful Texas twang serves as the perfect musical foil to Cotton’s raging harp.

James Cotton’s Cotton Mouth Man

Cotton Mouth Man was produced in Nashville by Tom Hambridge, who is fast becoming the blues industry’s “go to” guy. Besides Hambridge’s natural feel for, and understanding of the music, he brings his own skills as a drummer and songwriter. Hambridge co-wrote 12 of the 13 songs here, many with Cotton, with the idea of telling the harp player’s life story in song. He surrounded Cotton with other instrumental talents like keyboardist Chuck Leavell, guitarist Rob McNelly, and bassist Glenn Worf as well as Tom Holland, Noel Neal, and Jerry Porter from Cotton’s road band. With a sturdy framework in place, Hambridge cuts ‘em all loose and watches the sparks fly. The album-opening title tracks launches with a funky guitar riff, a loose-limbed beat, and squalls of harmonica when Nulisch’s energetic vocals jump into the fray. Guest guitarist Joe Bonamassa send notes flying every which way above a lively rhythm, the song sounding like a late-night club jam, loud and boisterous but plenty entertaining.

Guest vocalist Gregg Allman drops by for “Midnight Train,” Cotton’s Delta-inspired, DeFord Bailey-styled locomotive harp licks opening the door for former Allman Brothers Band member Leavell’s Southern-fried piano-pounding. Allman’s vocals here are smoother and more soulful than one might expect, but it sounds like he’s having a heck of a time, and the song’s sly Memphis groove is contagious. Keb’ Mo’ provides a low-key, but effective country-blues styled vocal performance to “Mississippi Mud,” Cotton’s subtle harmonica flourishes enhancing the power of the lyrics as Leavell’s Pinetop Perkins-influenced piano notes tinkle away in the background. Cotton’s harpwork here is sublime and emotional, a truly fine example of why he’s held in such high esteem.

Wrapped Around My Heart

“Something For Me” is a high-energy blues rave-up, the kind of loudly-amped houserocker you’d hear blowing gale force out of a window of some North Mississippi Hill Country juke-joint. Warren Haynes adds his flamethrower vocals and guitar to the song, Cotton’s harp twisting and pounding at the arrangement like a jackhammer while the guitars scrape and buzz like an angry beehive. By contrast, Ruthie Foster’s powerful vocals on the bluesy torch song “Wrapped Around My Heart” rival Etta James at her most vulnerable, the lyrics drenched in emotion and draped with Cotton’s soulful harp play while Leavell’s chiming Hammond B3 brings a gospel vibe to serve as a backdrop. Foster’s voice here is pure heartbreak, easily one of the best things I’ve ever heard her do, the performance more than enough to silence any questions as to her blues bona fides.

The great Delbert McClinton brings his bold, time-tested, honky-tonk styled vocals to “Hard Sometimes,” a roots-rock oriented number that nevertheless offers up a foot-stomping rhythm, Leavell’s brassy pianoplay, and the constant, soul-shaking blasts of Cotton’s harmonica. A slight echo is layered onto Cotton’s electric harpwork for “Blues Is Good For You,” the Chicago blues legend setting a tone for the song’s shuffling rhythm as Nulisch’s soulful, spry vocals breathe life into the lyrics with humor, wit, and intelligence. The album-closing “Bonnie Blue” is Cotton’s lone vocal take on Cotton Mouth Man, a Delta-dirty acoustic blues joint featuring Colin Linden’s slinky resonator guitar playing. Cotton’s time-ravaged voice is oddly appropriate, and he compliments the biographical lyrics with his superb harpwork, which brings a little of his mentor, Sonny Boy Williamson to the table.             

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

James Cotton has earned his enormous reputation honestly and, unlike some of his colleagues in the blues, he’s never seemingly been one to crank out product just to make a buck and thus dilute his legacy. Even by the lofty standards set by such undeniable blues classics like High Compression or Harp Attack!, however, Cotton Mouth Man is a considerable success. Cotton’s voice may be shot, but he has the talented Nulisch to cover that base, and his harp playing has lost little of its power or distinctive artistry, even after better than five decades of abuse. Cotton Mouth Man is a worthy addition to the harp legend’s canon, an album that I believe time will judge to be as classic as Cotton’s earlier triumphs. (Alligator Records, released May 7, 2013)

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