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James Cotton performance review

Act: James Cotton
Where: Mayo Civic Center Presentation Hall
When: 7:30PM, 1/15/10

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Despite the hive mind of pre-conceived ideas formed via facebook, Amazon ratings, artist Web sites, youtube clips, and wikipedia, there will always be the surprise of the live performance. 

Watching James Cotton today conjures visions: what would it be like to watch James Cotton with the Muddy Waters band live at Theresa’s or see young James Cotton open up for Sonny Boy Williamson on the steps of a vintage Arkansas Juke?

The evening began with an outstanding band, getting the crowd all stoked up. The Rochester, MN concert crowd is polite and respectful, but, at a typical Riverside blues show, ‘stoked up’ would describe only a handful of – pretty much self-stoking (or possibly pre-stoked) well-preserved hipsters (usually the same faces) that work their way up to the front of the stage to gyrate for the last half.

Friday night, you could hear crowd noise throughout the Mayo Civic Center Presentation Hall. Yes, pretty stoked, with some hollers and responses more typical of Chicago Blues bars.

Among James Cotton’s band were: two great guitarists – one (Slam Allen) a showman and singer, the other (Rico McFarland) mixing Earl Hooker style old time licks with intense sparkling string skipper jazzy licks; a bass player (Noel Neal) who launches into funky solos, sounding like a 1970s Stanley Clarke has just stepped on the stage to jam; a drummer (Kenny Neal, Jr.) that knows how tastefully keep it all together without overplaying (something rare these days).

Really good bands like this are a little scary, because, with an older bluesman, one questions whether the band has been assembled to help cover for a master in his waning years. This was not the case Friday.

The only thing waning may have been a PA problem. Cotton complained several times about not hearing himself through the monitors, and even threw down his mic at one point and lightly kicked it aside. One got the idea that Cotton was playing with little personal feedback, but for the practiced player it didn’t really matter. Aside from one subtle early mid-song harp switch, you could not hear it in his playing – loud vibrant playing, with confidence, force and mouth control that proved the only key thing waning over time was his speaking voice. (Cotton, who had radiation treatments in 1994, now speaks in a quiet husky voice.) In fairness, I've been going to Riverside concerts for years; this is the first complaint I've noticed, and the room sound in the hall was wonderful.

In the first half, of the show they played some blues standards mixed with samples off Cotton’s albums. Slam Allen kept the show rolling with his singing duties, and James Cotton only needed to flex the pipes to say things that were really important. Most of the really important things came from his harp. You could hear the Muddy Waters band, Howling Wolf, with some rural Mississippi ala Sonny Boy and Sonny Terry mixed in. At times, he played alone and you could imagine him playing as a youth in the Mississippi delta cotton fields.

In the last half of the show, talking about Muddy Waters, Cotton said, “He taught me more about the blues than anyone I know.” The band then launched into a classic Muddy Waters medley; kicked off with Cotton’s stellar arrangement of “Mojo Working,” along with some fine harmonica work on a piece where cotton recalled the classic 1950s Aristocrat (Chess) hit single “Long Distance Call.”

Of course, one of the final numbers had to be the crowd pleasing “Sweet Home Chicago” with some – actually, in tune – audience sing along. The encore included a nod to Sonny Boy Williamson, with “Don’t Start Me Talking.” Instead of the intimate, subtle jazzy showmanship of Sonny Boy’s harmonica swallowing low note playing, Cotton’s chops on the piece were vibrant and resounding at the end of the show.

Whether you were a Muddy Waters fan, a James Cotton fan, or just someone who enjoys the blues, this concert was special: a first rate performance by a blues legend still in his prime at 74. It doesn’t get much better.

4 out of 5 stars 

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