Review: Cephas and Wiggins - Richmond Blues
Label: Smithsonian Folkways
Released: July 29, 2008
I was scared when I was first asked to review Richmond Blues. Most of what I've heard from Smithsonian Folkways has been extraordinary, but most of the music I've discovered on their label is classic stuff that's passed the test of time. It's hard to go wrong with Lead Belly or Paul Robeson or Woody Guthrie. But a new blues recording by a couple of guys I've never even heard of? I don't know...
In fairness, I have to put my bias on the table. I don't much like the blues. I went to a cut-rate music school in the late '80s whose mission statement might as well have been, "We'll teach you to play fast." And what's the easiest thing to play when you're learning how to play fast? Yep. The blues. You haven't lived until you've sat in a room full of long-haired Norwegian men pick-sweeping their way through a Muddy Waters song.
Needless to say, it soured me on the blues. And on long-haired Norwegian men, but that's a story for another day.
So after months of ignoring emails from the label asking me if I liked the CD, I finally accepted the fact that I had. To. Listen.
And hot dog! Listening is actually pretty fun!
First of all, this is pretty simple stuff, at least by Norwegian long-hair standards. It's an acoustic guitar/harmonica duo, with vocals. No drums, no bass, no amplifiers, no keys, and certainly no 32nd notes or whammy bars or any of that crap. The harmonica is much closer to Sonny Terry than it is Blues Traveller, and the guitar and voice remind me of Lead Belly. Not that Cephas & Wiggins sound like Lead Belly, but that's a much closer comparison than anyone like BB King or Muddy Waters or Stevie Ray Vaughn.
For more than 30 years, Cephas & Wiggins have kind of been the international diplomats of a style called Piedmont blues, because they've traveled all over the world playing their music and introducing the traditional sound to new audiences. I wouldn't know Piedmont blues if it came up and bit me on the leg, but I can't imagine anybody doing the music more justice than these two men. The interplay between the harmonica and the voice is awesome. There's a great deal of call and response happening, and it's just a lot of fun hearing what I can only describe as a conversation between Cephas' voice and Wiggins' harmonica.
I'm a bit surprised by the fact that most of the songs are slow or mid-tempo pieces. From what I read in the liner notes (which alone are worth the price of the CD), Piedmont blues was popular at black house parties and social gatherings in the South and Mid-Atlantic. This isn't music I can really imagine dancing to, though, which means either Cephas & Wiggins have spent too much time playing folk festivals and universities instead of Saturday night house parties, or my days as a glowstick-waving raver have irreversably corrupted my idea of dance music. Most of these songs make me imagine sitting on the porch with a jug of hooch while I listen intently to the music. (For what it's worth, I have never drank 'hooch' in my life, be it in a jug or a glass or a paper cup. But I bet some hooch would taste mighty fine with Richmond Blues.)
This is a good CD that is very different from what most people, especially those of us who were born and raised on rock, think of as the blues. One additional appeal of this CD is that, as a rock fan, I can hear this music's influence on groups like White Stripes. Richmond Blues is definitely worth a listen, even if you don't like the blues.
If you're curious about my rating categories, read the description.