CD Review – James Cotton “Cottonmouth Man”
He may have lost his voice, but his sound is still as strong as ever. James Cotton’s latest Alligator release, Cottonmouth Man, shows him at the top of his powers, his trademark waaaah harpblast still a formidable force.
Cotton does manage to croak his way through the final cut, but most of the vocals are handled by former Texas Heat/Anson Funderburgh and the Rockets vocalist Darrell Nulisch, who has worked with Cotton on and off since the mid ’90s when Cotton underwent a bout with throat cancer. For this outing, Cotton also gets some vocal and instrumental help from a bevy of blues biggies: Joe Bonamassa, Ruthie Foster, Gregg Allman, Keb Mo, Delbert McClinton and Warren Haynes.
But this is not just a guest star showcase as used by some aging musicians to bolster faltering careers. Cotton’s presence here is considerable. He co-wrote 7 of the 13 cuts and plays hard on all of ’em. This is one of Cotton’s most rollicking albums, full of spirit and power.
The title cut has Cotton firing off soundbursts at Nulisch’s vocals, with Bonamossa weaving around the melody with tube screaming intensity. Cotton takes the tune out with a two minute, steam train boiler blowout solo demonstrating a degree of breath control and force harp players half his age would kill to be able to pull off at 77.
He keeps up that retro train motif in “Midnight Train,” chugging along at breakneck speed, blowin’ his whistle to warn the others to get out of his way as he blasts his way along the track.
On the autobiographical “He Was There,” Cotton proves he don’t need no fancy guest stars, working with just his backing band; drummer Jerry Porter, bassist Noel Neal and guitarist Tom Holland. Stones keyboardist Chuck Leavell also sits in, but for this project he’s a part of the band, appearing on nearly every cut. Cotton says all that needs to be said with his harp while Nulisch adds the voiceover, testifying that Cotton has “had his mojo working since he was 19 years old.”
Delbert McClinton co-wrote (with producer Tom Hambridge) and helms the Jimmy Reed style “Hard Sometimes,” but Cotton literally blows rings around him, surrounding him with a wall of Superharp.
“Young Bold Women” burbles with a Professor Longhair syncopation on the verses, breaking down into raucous Texas roadhouse honky-tonk on the choruses. Cotton spars with Nulisch, answering his body shots with stiff uppercuts, his harp drawing blood with every swipe.
Cottonmouth Man is as good as anything he’s ever done, proving that despite his vocal hardship, James Cotton is still one of the greatest blues communicators of all times.