Review: James Cotton – Cotton Mouth Man

Posted on: Wednesday, Jun 5, 2013


James Cotton – Cotton Mouth Man

(Alligator Records: ALCD 4954)

At the age of 77 the Chicago harmonica legend, James Cotton, has possibly delivered one of the finest releases in his seven decades in music. “Cotton Mouth Man” is produced by the Grammy-winning Tom Hambridge, who also contributes drums; and is Cotton’s fifth release for Alligator Records, with a host of original songs that tell the story of his life in the blues . . . from his Delta origins, to recording in Memphis for Sun Records and his migration to Chicago in 1954.

A 12-year stint with Muddy Waters cemented his position as one of the harmonica’s blues greats, leading to over forty years fronting his own bands. Here most of his present band contribute, including Darrel Nulisch (vocals), Tom Holland (guitar), Noel Neal (bass) and Jerry Porter (drums), with a host of star names helping out, mainly as guest vocalists with sadly Cotton’s voice ravaged by illness . . . the good news however is that his harmonica playing is so powerful and thrilling!

James Cotton and Tom Hambridge co-wrote many of the songs here and a treat they are. The music gets off to a rousing treat on the excellent title cut, “Cotton Mouth Man”, with Joe Bonamassa contributing some guitar and the soulful, great voice of Darrel Nulisch . . . and the first blast of the great man’s harmonica. The following “Midnight Train” starts with salvo from his harmonica again, with some sparkling piano from Chuck Leavell, who plays on most tracks here; with some tasteful guitar from Tom Holland – with Gregg Allman  taking the vocals.

The pace is taken down for “Mississippi Mud”, telling of the early days in the Delta, and it is enlivened by a lovely vocal from Keb Mo’, with the upright bass of Glen Worf and Tom Hambridge’s drums gently pushing the song along. The classic Chicago blues of “He Was There” recalls the legendary days of 50s Chicago and the Muddy Waters band in full flight . . . telling of his arrival in the ‘Windy City” . . . hence, ‘he was there’.

The soulful slow blues “Wrapped Around My Heart” is a showcase for the glorious vocals of Ruthie Foster, who is without a doubt one of the blues finest female singers – some fine guitar here from Rob McNelley, with Leavell switching to Hammond B-3, and more harmonica ‘fireworks’ from James Cotton himself. The great Delbert McClinton sings the Jimmy Reed-like shuffle of “Hard Sometimes”, with the band hitting that lovely, laid-back groove.

The chestnut “Bird Nest On The Ground” is another highlight, it is often covered but this is a fine version; this great album ends on a poignant note with Cotton’s gravelly voice singing the down home country blues of “Bonnie Blue”, with just that and his harmonica accompanied by Colin Linden’s acoustic resonator guitar. . . a new Cotton/Hambridge tune that could easily have been recorded 50 years ago.

Great to report one of the all-time blues legends on such fine form . . . this will take some beating for blues harmonica album of the year . . . needless to say it is heartily recommended!


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