Album review: JAMES COTTON – Cotton Mouth Man

James Cotton

Alligator records [Release date: 06.05.13]

Grammy award winning Chicago blues-harp legend James Cotton is back! Well he’s never really been away, but ill health robbed him of his vocals making it all the more remarkable that ‘Cotton Mouth Man’ is such is a pivotal recording.

He’s teamed up with the song-writer, drummer and Buddy Guy’s Grammy award winning producer Tom Hambridge to co-write 7 songs. Much like the Muddy Waters album ‘Hard Again’ on which he played, Cotton is rejuvenated by an ‘A’ team of players and special guests who provide him with the backing, support and enthusiasm to bring a renaissance to his playing

James blows energetically on the ripping title track as the ubiquitous Joe Bonamassa adds a steely solo over Rob McNelley’s boogie rhythm. Cotton huskily introduces ‘Midnight Train’ and revisits the steam train sounds of his youth before adding a gritty solo alongside Greg Allman’s trademark vocal on a funky groove. He also wails from his soul on ‘Mississippi Mud’ as Keb Mo gets down low with some expressive phrasing.

Cotton attacks his music with fervour and a mix of breathy wails and sparkling riffs that mirror the feel of the songs. He’s in inspired form, no more so than on the celebratory autobiographical stop-time ‘He Was There’. The song is epitomised by the line: ‘You can’t make this stuff up, James Cotton was there’.

‘Wasn’t My Time To Go’ is a sister song, notable for its heartfelt warmth and ironic lyrics. Keb Mo’s observational narration tells James’s life story and he later nails his life force on closing phrase: “As Long as I can still blow it ain’t my time to go”. Needless to say James blows hardest on this track as if to emphasise the veracity of the lyrics.

It’s closely followed by the dynamic boogie ‘Something For Me’ featuring Warren Haynes, who sings his first verse through a mic harp and then steps things up with James. They momentarily play double lines over the peerless rhythm section of bassist Glenn Worf and Tom Hambridge, before James’s riffs busily emulate Warren soulful vocals.

The album has a lovely flow and some thoughtful sequencing, and sensibly places the slow blues ‘Wrapped Around My Heart’ in the middle of the play list. Ruthie Foster’s vocal is perfect and guitarist Rob McNelley and James adds weighty fills before he takes the main solo.

Darrell Nulisch adds an excellent vocal on the crisp shuffle ‘Saint On Sunday’, while Cotton’s Texas buddy Delbert McClinton adds his own ironic phrasing on the languid swing of ‘Hard Sometimes’. Cotton’s big-toned riffs and note repeats are delivered with the kind of power and intensity that seemed beyond him a few years ago.

‘Cotton Mouth Man’ is a resounding triumph built on rigorous pre-planning and a musical vision that incorporates the life and times and signature sounds of James Cotton. It is one thing to search for a representative equilibrium to mirror the Chicago legend’s music, but it’s quite another to make everything gel and spark so well, let alone generate such a defining performance from the man himself.

Producer Tom Hambridge knows his subject well as evidenced by the defining line of ‘Blues Is Good For You’: “The doctor done told me playing the blues is good for you, he said just keep on blowing ‘til your 102”. Let’s hope he does. ***** (5/5)

Review by Pete Feenstra

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