Take one Mysticssippi bluesman, blend in a swamp roots rocker, dump in a truckload of down-and dirty-blues and whoop-and-holler gospel, then strain it through a Canadian filter. That recipe whips up a heapin’ platter of goodness that makes backslid sinners and hellbound bluesmen stagger ecstatically toward the light. In this case, the light is shining from the smoke-stained windows of a swampy juke joint where most of the redemption is temporary and comes in a bottle, but the fix sure sounds good.
Monkey Junk frontman Steve Marriner and East/West blues-fusion guitarist Harry Manx had never recorded together before this album, but the Canadians’ relationship goes back nearly two decades. Marriner was 16 when he asked to sit in on harp with Manx at a gig in Ottawa, impressing Manx so much that he pulled the teenager out of school soon afterward to take out on tour. Marriner blossomed into a world-class bluesman proficient on bass, drums, keys, and guitar, cofounding blues-rock outfit Monkey Junk in 2008. Manx’s blues output took an entirely different direction, the guitarist studying Indian folk music and then blending it with American blues performed on a 20-stringed instrument called a mohan veena that’s played like a slide guitar for a style he’s dubbed “Mysticssippi.”
Manx only uses his mohan veena on the title cut, inserting a sitar-sounding break about halfway through Marriner’s swampy narrative before sliding back into more of a traditional slide groove.
Charley Patton’s “Rattlesnake Blues” gets smoothed out considerably from Patton’s gruff original, gliding along on rails greased by Marriner’s fluid harp while Manx’s slide reverberates swampily alongside.
Manx adds some Eastern flavoring to Rev. Gary Davis’ “Death Have No Mercy in This Land,” with Marriner’s 12-string sweetening Davis’ dour message: “Death never takes a vacation in this land / He comes to your house and won’t stay long / Look in the bed and find everybody gone.”
Although it’s a Marriner original, “My Lord” sounds like it could have come right out of Davis’ catalog, Marriner demonstrating why Manx was so impressed with his harp skills so long ago, accompanying himself on 12-string guitar backed by a gospel choir that sounds like The Jordanaires.
The duo really shines on Pops Staples’ “Wish I Had Answered,” Marriner duplicating the Staples patriarch’s trademark tremolo on guitar and also doing a respectable Pops vocal, with Clayton Doley’s organ burbling churchily around the the edges. The Stapleses recorded at least three versions of the tune, starting back in 1962 with Pops on lead, included on the 1990 compilation Great Day. There are two versions with Mavis’ marvelous moans as lead vocal, included on Take Me To The River (Music From the Motion Picture) in 2014 and Your Good Fortune in 2015.
“This Little Light of Mine” will have you wondering if somebody slipped a hit of acid in your water supply. It opens with what sounds like Pete Seeger attempting rockabilly, segueing into rowdy Brownie and Sonny Piedmont Blues territory before jumping to Billy Preston about to get thrown out of church for rocking the B-3, followed by Marriner’s twangy Bakersfield guitar break and then taken home by Manx’s Seeger impersonation.
You’ll need protective headgear to get through this one, but once your brain stops rattling around in your helmet, it’s well worth the ride.