Damn, here’s another really top-notch record from Elvin Bishop. How does he do it? Very few blues musicians can turn out records that are as consistently great as Elvin’s. I love his guitar tones, his down-home vocals and his earnest, unprepossessing spirit. But behind the aw-shucks delivery is a master of the form, a keen student of history who learned his craft from the originators he studied under back in the 1960s at the height of the Chicago blues scene. One of the most important things Bishop learned from them is that blues is spirit music, not flash or technique but soul.
Bishop’s set at last year’s Jazz Fest was one of the highlights at the Blues Tent. It was a small band, allowing Bishop to let it all hang out. Here Big Fun Trio gives us another uncut dose of Bishop’s blues, this time around with no drum kit. Willy Jordan is playing cájon on the set. The South American percussion instrument is basically a wooden box that you sit on and play with your hands. Jordan lays down some intricate and very funky rhythms on the magic box, allowing a lot of space for Bishop’s guitar and Bob Welsh’s piano. Welsh, a regular member of Bishop’s touring band, gets a great chance to stretch out and demonstrate his Louisiana chops (he’s from Covington). Welsh even sings on a great version of Dave Bartholomew’s “Let the Four Winds Blow,” accompanying himself on piano while Bishop adds horn-like slide guitar fills.
There are a lot of different looks here. Elvin has always been politically savvy, and he offers some uplifting advice to those of us who feel steamrollered by recent political developments right off the bat, with “Keep On Rollin’.” His capacity for mythologizing his blues dirt farmer lifestyle, which dates back to his Pigboy Crabshaw days with the Butterfield Blues Band, has evolved into a veritable franchise over the years, and he invites us all along for a couple of adventures. “Let’s Go” is about heading out to the club, a tale which inevitably leads to some of the hottest guitar playing on the set. Then he and the band find themselves in New Orleans to play Jazz Fest. Elvin goes on to describe the menu at Mother’s as a verse in “That’s What I’m Talkin’ About.” Prediction: You will hear this song played on WWOZ. “Ace in the Hole” showcases another side of Bishop’s storytelling mode as he offers some front porch homilies.
“It’s You, Baby” references the Southside Chicago scene with its J.B. Hutto–style raw stomp and includes a great harmonica solo from Kim Wilson. “Southside Slide” is a buzzing slide guitar–driven instrumental; another hot instrumental, “Delta Lowdown,” features Rick Estrin’s mouth harp playing. “Honey Babe” is a country blues with a twang at the edges. The guitar texture on Bishop’s version of Bobby and Shirley Womack’s “It’s All Over Now” sizzles like bacon on a cast-iron fry pan. And that’s only a taste of all the creative distortion throughout this set.
Bishop’s ability to wrest new feel from choice covers is one of his strengths. But the ultimate blues tribute comes on “100 Years of Blues,” an autobiographical song co-written with Charlie Musselwhite, who joins in on harmonica and vocals. “I think we paid our dues,” notes Elvin.