John Mooney & Bluesiana plays Jazz Fest on Saturday, April 26—Blues Tent, 1:30 p.m.
Delta blues great Son House is not for the chicken-hearted. His songs deal with the most essential matters—sin, redemption, the apocalypse, short skirts and corn liquor—and if you cover him without the proper intensity, you’ve blown it.
This is not a problem for John Mooney, among the most intense of modern bluesmen. He comes by his Son House influence honestly: As a youngster in the early ’70s, he tracked the aging Son House down and spent a few years learning from the master. Along the way, he absorbed House’s hard-slicing guitar style and his blurring of sacred and profane issues. So this tribute album, Mooney’s first release in eight years, is a back-to-roots affair but it rings with the authority of Mooney’s work since then.
Mooney plays solo on a National steel guitar, with only foot stomping for accompaniment; producer Jake Eckert keeps it raw, echoing the spirit (but not the scratches) of House’s vintage recordings. There are plenty of hot licks but no extended solos; the intent here is to honor Son House as a songwriter. While there are some lighter moments—including the near-jubilant “Sacred Ground,” one of only two Mooney originals—it’s true to the foreboding in House’s vision.
“Death Letter” still sports one of the blues’ most chilling lyrics—it’s “Saint James Infirmary” without the relief—and Mooney’s howls bring it home. “You Gotta Move” is the closest the album gets to party music (mainly because everybody knows the Rolling Stones version) but Mooney includes some verses that make the drinking and whoring sound less savory. (He also uses the correct lyrics, making it clear that the Lord, not the law, is on your tail.) Mooney’s voice has gotten even rougher since he last recorded and it’s a bit disturbing to hear such a grizzled voice sing “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl”—but I suspect that was the point.