(Originally posted in 2006)
I love it when I buy a new record, stick it in the CD player (or even better, in the car’s CD player) and as soon as the first few notes blast out, I’m already grinning and thinking ‘Yeaaah!’. Instant purchase gratification, a sensation that is simply too rare…
But there’s something even rarer and more pleasant, and that’s when I have the exact same feeing listening to a record I’ve owned for ages but hasn’t seen the colour of the laser beam for a long time. Yesterday morning I dug up James Cotton - Live at the Electric Lady. I got in the car, and as soon as Back at the Chicken Shack began, I was smiling like a lunatic. “Hell Yes!” Hard to handle the clutch while tapping my feet, but hey, who cares…
Cotton’s band on this record (recorded in 75 or 76, they don’t even know) is top notch both on groove and energy. It’s wilder than the controlled power of 60s Chicago blues, but also a lot less square than Muddy’s Hard Again and subsequent Blue Sky albums. This ‘modern’ sound and the extremely funky groove of the whole is largely due to the tone and amazing slapping of bassist Charles Calmese.
As soon as the record gets going, the magic happens. Back to the Chicken Shack, Jimmy Smith’s instrumental hit is lead by Little Bo’s tenor sax (and sans Cotton who learned from his elders the trick of making a star entrance after the first number). The funky bass is to die for, the sax picks up the first – and very long – solo, and then Matt ‘Guitar’ Murphy comes in.
I have to tell you that I went to see Matt Murphy live in Belgium some years back and I came back entirely unimpressed. The concert didn’t leave me with a great opinion of his musicality. So much so that when I discovered that it was him playing on Sonny Boy Williamson’s 1963 Storyville sessions I simply could not believe it. And here, on the first track of this James Cotton record, he rips in to these incredibly fluid jazzy lines that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Robben Ford record! Simply superb… I’m not sure that his years as a Blues Brothers helped him much to keep the spice in his playing…
Anyway, after this stunning introduction, Cotton joins the band with a huge sound and they start with a breakneck pace Off the Wall, so fast in fact that it’s a little too much. When the track stops after two minutes, Cotton says a few words and then jumps into Rocket 88, and for a couple of bars it sounds like the same track: same pace, same key… But that one works better; it’s more in the spirit of the original. The first solo is the tenor sax, and then guitar and harmonica join on a middle ‘theme’. It’s fast, alive and no longer than two and a half minutes.
Truth is, Cotton doesn’t really let the audience catch its breath. As soon as Rocket 88 ends, the band starts on a very fast Don’t Start me to Talking. Cotton isn’t exactly vocally subtle, he’s never been a great singer, but his growling, powerful voice is accurate, and he uses it nicely within the range of his capacity. Compared to some of his later albums, even before his voice deteriorated, Live at the Electric Lady is very nice in this respect.
Then comes a Georgia Swing that’s just a tad too messy to sound right, followed by the first Cotton original, One More Mile from 100% Cotton. One More Mile is structured as a blues, but uses a lot of rhythmic breaks. Very punchy, really interesting.
When that track ends, you think the time has come for a little breather. But no. Cotton rips into the wildest version of Got my Mojo Working I’ve been given to hear. It’s one of the rare versions I still enjoy, I’ve heard that one covered so much… The pressure comes down just a tad on How Can a Fool Go Wrong, a classic of diatonic blues players known for its characteristic first position riff, often quoted, never bested. I really like this track: Cotton demonstrates that the upper octave can be used for a lot more than effect.
This is followed by Blow Wind Blow, and still no rest. It’s the tenth track on the record and the pressure is still at the top. Compared to the version on 100% Cotton, this one is faster and more rugged. Not a masterpiece, but a good fit with the rest of the program, and Murphy’s solo really rips…
And then, at long last, you get to breathe a little. Cotton’s version of Little Walter’s Mean ol’ World is really sweet and Cotton, Bo and Murphy get to demonstrate another facet of their talent, more sentimental, more moving. A true pleasure.
The pace picks up again for the next two tracks, I don’t know which was later made famous by the Blues Brothers’ Briefcase Full of Blues (with Matt Murphy, for those who didn’t get it) and Murphy’s original Boogie Thing, an awesome track to light the fuse! Amazing punch, phat harp sound, and the whole band yelling the “It’s a boogie thing” leitmotiv.
From there, the concert winds down to a mellower end. A rather good cover of Stormy Monday, another of those blues chesnuts that can sound really trite. Not so here. The gig closes on a surprising but quite good version of ‘Fever’. On these last two, Cotton sings but doesn’t play harp. I’ve always thought the greatest soloists know when their instrument wouldn’t fit or bring any additional goodness. Cotton is a great soloist.
So what you get in the end is a rather conventional repertoire made incandescent by a veritable groove machine, and that makes listening to this live an electric experience indeed. Live at the Electric Lady is aptly named.