One Track Mind: John Oates, “Mississippi Mile”
by Nick DeRiso
You might expect that a tribute album to John Oates’ youth would sound more like Gamble and Huff than the dusty Delta. After all, as the mustachioed one in Hall and Oates, he helped craft a canny update of the Philly soul sound that scored six No. 1 singles on the Billboard Hot 100, from “Rich Girl” to “I Can’t Go for That” to “Maneater.”
Yet, here was have Oates, growling and stomping his way through “Mississippi Mile,” a country-inflected, grease-popping blues original. Oates, who just turned 62, is intimate, right up close, even as his backing band sets about making this rafter-rattling ruckus.
The title track of a swampy, first-take-sounding new record featuring Jerry Douglas, Bekka Bramlett, Sam Bush and producer Mike Henderson, “Mississippi” is miles away from sleek, synthy sides like the charttopping 1980s-era H&O number “Out of Touch.” Instead, we have a tangy blend of sounds, like Abandoned Luncheonette played by a chicken-wire bar band. Of course, that isn’t necessarily a surprise, despite his long tenure with Daryl Hall.
The Aspen, Colo., resident’s most recent release, 2008’s serious, almost meditative 1000 Miles of Life, also boasted an Americana feel. But Oates’ third solo effort goes deeper into that groove, with a rawer sound, even as it moves toward lighter fare. Mississippi Mile, released on Tuesday by PS Records/Elektra Nashville, includes a handful of originals as well as covers of tunes associated with Chuck Berry, the Coasters, Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, Mississippi John Hurt and Curtis Mayfield — each, in one way or another, a signpost through Oates’ childhood obsession with music and the guitar.
Other standout tracks include: Curtis Mayfield’s “It’s Alright,” the original “Deep River” (inspired by a catastrophic flood in Nashville, his second home), a Texas swing-influenced version of the H&O hit “You Make My Dreams Come True,” Berry’s “Let’s Rock” and Percy Mayfield’s “Please Send Me Someone to Love,” reportedly a suggestion from Tom “T-Bone” Wolk, the late Hall and Oates bassist.
Oates has been expanding his musical pallette for some time, sitting in with everybody from the Meters to moe to Tab Benoit. He’s set to join Umphrey’s McGee during their set at the June 2-5 Mountain Jam Festival in Hunter, N.Y., as well. But this feels more organic, nearer to home for Oates.
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