If you've ever wondered what a long dead and gone bluesman of the first generation, say Son House, would sound like in the here and now, John Mooney is your man. Born in New Jersey, and raised in Rochester, NY, Mooney was one of the fortunates who learned first hand from a Delta Blues master. The teacher was none other than Son House. Mooney supported his friend in the 1970's, a kind form of payback, and developed a friendship that lasted until House passed away in 1988. Later relocating to New Orleans, John landed a contract with Blind Pig, who issued his first LP, "Comin' Your Way," in 1979. Staying close to his roots for a good while, he was primarily an acoustic player in the Delta tradition, and then formed Bluesiana. That group played a mix of blues and roots music with more focus on Mooney's now-electric guitar. After a number of recordings on various labels through the 1980's and 90's, John returned back home where he began, with the Blind Pig imprint. Released in the Spring of 2000, "Gone To Hell" could easily be the finest work by this eclectic artist yet.
The original title track starts the fun as a searing electric slide workout with plenty of help from Jeff Sarli tackling the bass chores, Kerry Brown delivering the beats from his drum kit, and Alfred 'Uganda' Roberts contributing percussion and congas. Special guest, Dr. John, helps out on four cuts with some superb piano. John gets a muscular sound with his Strat, and the vocals are dynamite in a plastic jewel case. While influenced by Son and others, Mooney has become his own man, with a sound, style, and niche, that some don't quite understand. There ain't a lot to analyze, this is pure roots, with a focus on blues-based good times by-way-of the dark side. Not afraid to touch on subjects that were close to the hearts of many Delta bluesmen, the devil and hell, Mooney takes a poke, here and there, at Mephistopheles. "No" is a quick and powerful answer to a woman's questions, and the second line beat steps up on "That's What Lovers Do." Incredible versions of two Son House gems come in the form of "Dry Spell Blues" and "Down South Blues." The first is a stirring request to the powers-that-be for rain, to save sun ravaged crops, and with plenty of startling acoustic slide. Vocally, Mooney is, at times, eerily close to the phrasing of Son House, and from a guitarist's perspective, he learned his craft well and pays tribute of the finest sorts. The second House cover finds Mooney retelling the pitfalls that lie ahead for those crossing the law in the South. He also takes on a Skip James classic, "Cypress Grove," with excellent and updated results, and Leroy Carr's "How Long Blues" is another wonderful nod to a master. Everything else comes from Mooney's pen with "Made Up My Mind," a rugged and stumbling groove, standing tall. "Funky Arkansas" is a brooding piece with sharp guitar and drilling vocals, while the shakers and percussion add the necessary mysteriousness. "Indian Lea" is top-shelf and stinky N'awlins funk at its best, and the riveting "I Wonder Blues" takes the listener back to the Mississippi Delta, as a solo acoustic number, with Mooney's National guitar and voice here being the stuff legends are made of. "Glass House" is a stunning electric bottleneck trip with only Roberts' congas joining in, as Mooney warns of the age old adage, and "Grab A Hold" settles in with another second line feel.
If you haven't yet had the pleasure of John Mooney's company, make "Gone To Hell," your introduction. After digesting this wonderful slice of rootsy, gutsy fun, dig deeper and uncover the treasures available throughout the other incredible efforts this artist has produced. For more information on John, and many other Blind Pig offerings, visit www.blindpigrecords.com and if anybody's lookin' for me, "tell 'em that I've gone to hell!"
This review is copyright © 2001 by Craig Ruskey, and Blues On Stage, all rights reserved. Copy, duplication or download prohibited without written permission. For permission to use this review please send an E-mail to Ray Stiles.
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