Fine picking and sliding from a master of old-time blues
Catfish Keith is one of those troubadours who seem to continually have a new tour or an album on the go. ‘Land Of The Sky’ is his 20th release and he has toured the UK and Europe on around 50 occasions since first setting foot over here in 1992. While he might not be a household name he has several awards under his belt along with 13 Grammy nominations, recognising his status as one of the premier exponents of acoustic blues (and champion of vintage blues) we have these days.
‘Land Of The Sky’ is a solo effort with Keith playing six different guitars (all noted in the liner) and it features a brace of covers from venerable masters along with some original numbers, inspired, says Keith, by listening to the likes of The Carter Family, Cripple Clarence Lofton and Lonnie Johnson. There’s little to distinguish between the two elements as he has been so long immersed in the world of his heroes that it’s doubtful that he could write or perform anything which isn’t steeped in delta lore or string band memory. Anyone who has seen him live will attest that he lives and breathes these songs but will also be able to say that, unlike some other, more precious keepers of the archive, Catfish Keith injects a delicious element of fun and joy into his performances. Take for example, the cover here of Memphis Minnie’s ‘Dirty Mother For You’. For sure, it’s mean and evil with guitar strings snapped and pulled every which way but it’s the way Keith almost slurs the words, “dirty mother for you” as if he’s about to pronounce the baddie as a dirty motherfucker which never fails to amuse this listener.
He opens with a Jimmie Rodgers song, ‘Away Out On The Mountain’, and immediately his prowess on guitar (in this case, a 2018 National Reso-Phonic “Exploding Palm” Baritone Tricone – but that’s enough of the guitar porn) is quite amazing to hear as the notes just cascade in all directions. It’s also an opportunity to hear him indulge in some fine yodelling. There’s a feisty take on the Rev. Gary Davis’s ‘Samson & Delilah’ while ‘Red Nightgown’, a song by Jimmie Davis, known at the time as the singing governor of Louisiana, is quite a find as Keith uses a bottleneck to play this bizarre tale of a harpy you’d be well advised to avoid.
The original songs are as engaging and entertaining as the vintage picks. ‘Little Bitty Bird’ has a charm to it while ‘Scoodle Oot’N’Doo’ is a ukulele number which does indeed scoot along with some scatting involved. However, it’s the covers which dominate and, just in time for the festive season, there’s a killer version of ‘Santa Claus Blues’, originally by Walter Davis. There’s a slight sideways step when the unique Joseph Spence, the celebrated Bahamian guitarist, hoves into view on ‘Bimini Gal’. Keith captures Spence’s eccentric guitar style but his vocals have a hard time here, he maybe should have just mumbled them as Spence did. Nevertheless, anyone brave enough to have a go gets a salute.
The album closes on a high note as that “Exploding Palm” guitar reverberates to the grave but tender Charley Patton song, ‘Some Of These Days’. Again, one just has to admire Catfish Keith’s picking and sliding and whatnot.
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