Think back . . . think way back, to an arguably golden era, when the very foundation for what we've come to think of as "the blues" was first being laid down. Back to the source . . . 'cause that's what Steven C's done with "Black Cat Blues," his second outing as leader. The result is a throwback of sorts, a return to the basics, with solid ensemble playing, topical lyrics, and some of the finest harmonica playing north of the Mississippi.
Steven C is something of a legend in Southern Ontario; his Red Rockets, an ever-changing aggregation featuring some of the city's finest players, has been a Toronto institution for more years than either Steven or I would care to tally. He now makes Oshawa, Ontario, his home, and has recruited a fabulous batch of accompanists who share his enthusiasm for "old school" blues.
Recorded locally, "Black Cat Blues" is a no-frills affair that deliberately eschews studio trickery and glitzy production values in favour of the raw and the real. Those seeking sonic perfection and pristine clarity won't find it here; this one's got dirt all over it, from the thick tones of Steven's harp work to the raunchy sounds guitarist Rob Quail coaxes out, with pounding piano to thicken the mix courtesy of Terry Blankley, a.k.a. "The Blues Daddy." (Rob and Terry share production credits).
Steven is a veritable encyclopaedia of blues lore, and his love of its arcana is amply evident in both his choice of covers ("Stick Out Your Can," mildly salacious but downright tame by today's standards, was once available only 'under the counter') and in his originals. The latter reflect his passion for local history, with no fewer than four exploring his adopted home (he was born just outside Chicago); thus we get "Prospect Street" (an homage to one of Steven's favourite blues joints) and the acoustic "Cedardale Blues," along with "Skae's Corners" (Oshawa's original name) followed by "McLaughlin Buick." All employ local references but remain timeless tales, as they deal with the grand themes of life and love. Elsewhere there's the humourous "Too Much Month (Not Enough Money" (and who can't relate to that?), the classic 'back door' theme of "Rat Problems," and the wry "Money Talks."
Steven's harp work is positively masterful; not in the "see how many notes I can play" manner, but in his expressive use of tone and dynamics. From piercing wails to squalling growls, his pallette is as broad as the human experience itself. Some might find his vocals a little mannered, as he often tends to slur his words somewhat; to me it's simply an aspect of his personality, part of what makes his music distinctly his.
If your tastes run to the slick, rock-influenced version of the blues you may find this one a little . . . well, primitive. But if you're a fan of the classic 50's-era Chicago style, raw and real, warts and all, you simply won't find much better than this.
690 Simcoe Street N., Oshawa, Ontario Canada
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