Blues legend Buddy Guy once said, “You stretch that string, you’re stretching your life.”
If the rattling string bends Phyllis Hopkins throws down as the opening salvo to Koko Taylor’s defiant “I’m a Woman” are any indication, then the musicians involved with this project are all damn near immortal.
Blues is blood, they say, and there’s no better presentation of that life force, locally, then what Bill Coleman and Sharon O’Connell (bass and drums, respectively, of duo The Soul Shakers – along with Eric Body on keys) have conjured up here. A series of live performances recorded during a fundraiser for the Scranton Cultural Center in February 2016, this disc is an all-star cast of NEPA blues talent that’s part old-fashioned R&B revue, part fleet-fingered jam session.
Hopkins leads off the disc’s first two tracks. A guitarist with a distinctly leathery West Side Chicago tone and grits ‘n gravy vocal style to match, she does justice to both “I’m a Woman,” and lending her guitar to B.B. King’s “Five Long Years,” on which harmonica ace Bob McCartney takes lead vocal. Both songs are loving tributes to the iconic originals, played with a fire that can only be captured live – Hopkins and McCartney locking horns hard in a frenzied tradeoff of guitar and harp solos on the latter tune that alone is worth the price of admission.
A noteworthy surprise on the disc is a cover of Buddy Guy’s “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” with guitarists Doug and Eamonn Hubert taking the lead. We should point out that Eamonn happens to be a 7-year-old prodigy, who takes Guy’s polka-dotted Stratocaster to task with a blistering solo beyond his years. Young Eamonn also handles lead vocals on this one, before handing the mic to his dad for Bo Diddley’s “Before You Accuse Me,” performed here in the more traditional Eric Clapton incarnation.
No discussion of NEPA blues is complete without homegrown star Clarence Spady, who offers up some of the more playful material of the set, with an ethereal, quieting rendition of Robert Johnson’s “Love In Vain,” played in an arrangement similar to Prince’s “Purple Rain.” Spady’s natural gift for easygoing soul is evident on his ultra-funky take on Fats Domino’s “Going To The River;” the song unrestrained in its jubilation.
Guitarists Peter Florance and Teddy Young round out the six-string rabble-rousers, offering twang-worthy takes on “Born In Chicago” (Florance) and gospel-infused spirit to John Hiatt’s “It Feels Like Rain” (Young). If these collective performances are the best of what NEPA blues offers, the genre is in no danger of fading away.
The disc is no less than undistilled gut-bucket passion, with instruments played like the devil himself took control. Like Scranton’s once-roaring blast furnaces, some white-hot blues again brings the city a mighty heat.
Mark Uricheck is a Weekender correspondent who writes weekly CD reviews. Reach Weekender at [email protected]
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