The first few seconds of steely, punctuated chording that opens J.P. Williams’ “Mixed Bag” is evocative of what the next 11 tracks hold – sparse, yet rhythmically rumbling acoustic blues.
The track, a Delta-dished interpretation of Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love,” is everything that Williams is known for, musically – string-snapping zips via resonator guitar, gruff, yet familiar husk in his voice, and earthen sophistication in his interpretation of the genre. Williams, now in his fifth decade as practitioner of Mississippi-strewn goodness, displays his wealth of dexterity here, with musical voicings that turn an eye toward originality in an often stagnated form of expression. It speaks volumes when a guy plays the standards without sounding, well, standard.
The latest release on NEPA’s newest boutique label, Blues Broker Records, “Mixed Bag” is just that – a top-notch selection of the Tunkhannock-based Williams’ mix of blues and folk, as he’s stated the album is a representation of what you’d see from him live. In addition to a heavy Chicago blues influence, he’s also been deeply touched by folk music – he spent several years on the coffeehouse circuit in New York City honing his skills in the interpersonal give and take that his music exudes so well.
Recorded at Dalton’s Republic Audio Studios, this folk/blues amalgam can be heard vividly in tracks like the Lowell George/Little Feat cut, “Willin’.” The song is a standout, in the fact that it takes the semi-rollick, countrified/Americana tone of the original and warms it up to a virtual fireside chat – Williams’ take sounds like the wrenched-heart conciliatory offering of a sage elder, with every note a stepping stone in the tale of being “kicked by the wind.”
“Be Kind To Me” is equally folk-laden, with a tongue-in-cheek hint of self-deprecation (Williams adds extra quirk with kazoo accompaniment, while sideman “Eddie The Harp” crows on with flyaway harmonica) – it’s the kind of witty fare in which singer/songwriter Guy Clark excelled.
There are also staunchly blues-infused offerings, like a slow-to-ignite cover of Muddy Waters’ “Long Distance Call,” complete with precision-stung slide guitar – Williams’ vocals coaxing and wry in his insinuation to his love, “one of these days, I’m gonna show you just how nice a man can be.”
When musicians talk of how you “can’t teach feel,” this is what they mean. “Firehouse Mama” is another intense, open-tuned blues burner – Williams’ funky vocal snark sounds something like a Dr. John-annotated reading of Skip James, with “she keeps me on fire, when there’s no one else around.”
Performances blooming with confidence, swagger, and resourceful creative license, J.P. Williams is a welcome drop of Delta rain to wash away a bad case of tired 12-bar blues.
Mark Uricheck is a Weekender correspondent who writes weekly CD reviews. Reach Weekender at [email protected]