Shake Mama Shake
BluesWax Rating: 9 out of 10
Almost uniformly, the best contemporary acoustic blues performers share a reverence for the pioneers of the genre, and just in the last few years we have been treated to excellent tribute cover albums by Guy Davis, Paul Rishell, Rory Block, and Paul Geremia, among many others.
Now Toby Walker, winner of the Blues Foundation’s International Blues Challenge in 2002 in the “Solo/Duo” category, and formerly known as Little Toby Walker, adds to the pantheon with his latest album, a compendium of sixteen cover songs. Some of the tunes are familiar, such as “Midnight Special” and “Travelin’ Riverside Blues,” some more obscure, but all are noteworthy and Walker imparts his own proficient twist to them.
Deploying an impressive array of vintage guitars — conveniently catalogued in the liner notes for the delectation of interested musicians — Walker explores a range of styles. Texas blues is exemplified by songs of Blind Willie Johnson and Mance Lipscomb. “Broke Down Engine” by Blind Willie McTell, “Tootie Blues” by Blind Blake, and “Meat Shakin’ Woman” by Blind Boy Fuller represent the Piedmont sub-genre. Delta blues are featured in Robert Johnson’s “Travelin’ Riverside Blues,” and in songs by Muddy Waters and Big Bill Broonzy, who both took the Delta to Chicago. Mississippi hill-country blues is here with Mississippi Fred McDowell’s “What’s the Matter Now,” although Walker’s rendition displays more melody that the typical mesmerizing drone of other hill country songs. There’s even a version of “Cigarette Blues” by Bo Carter, master of hokum blues and the amusing sexual double entendre.
John Hammond, Jr. is one contemporary of Walker’s who has lauded him, and no wonder: Walker sounds a little like Hammond (high praise indeed), not only in his expert slide and finger-picking guitar playing but also in his singing. Walker’s voice, while less smooth and a little raspier than Hammond’s, is compelling, and when he stretches into brief falsetto passages, his debt to Hammond and earlier predecessors is obvious.
There is not one subpar track on this album, but some stand out. Big Bill Broonzy’s “Shuffle Rag” is an instrumental with some dazzling finger-picking and “Blind Boy Fuller’s “Keep On Truckin’ “ has a zesty danceable groove. “She’s 19 Years Old,” Muddy Waters lascivious paean to adolescent girls (he even recorded a version where she was 15 years old), can’t quite match Muddy’s inimitable vocal but provides some splendid slide prowess. Walker’s wife Carol provides solid bass back-up on half of the tunes.
Steve Daniels is a contributing writer at BluesWax.
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