Watermelon Slim & the Workers,
The Wheel Man
(NorthernBlues, 2007)

When "more of the same" is about the toughest criticism one can level at a new release by an artist as entertaining as Watermelon Slim, one can safely assume the album is pretty darned good. But pretty darned good isn't exceptional and that, in itself, is a bit of a disappointment.

The Wheel Man starts out with real promise, launching with a duet between a matched pair of Slims. Chicago guitarist Magic Slim checks in with an easy vocal delivery and the sort of clean lead guitar lines that offer a wonderful counterpoint to Watermelon Slim's rougher slide guitar style. Then guest pianist David Maxwell pounds out an invigorating honkytonk accompaniment on "I've Got News" and The Wheel Man is off and running, pedal to the metal. And the energy level shows no signs of letting up when "Black Water" roles in to bemoan the politicians in Washington who "don't care about us poor boys down here ... in Lafayette and Pascadula, getting ready for the next big blow."

This is, as the album cover proclaims, "electrified, amplified sweet raggedy blues for the people." Throughout the album Watermelon Slim's vocals ooze exhilaration and moxie, whether he's singing about the "Newspaper Reporter" who isn't allowed to drink beer on the job or offering to take out the trash on "I Know One." And his harp playing is equally passionate and honest, madly propelling the break in "Drinking & Driving" and adding a melancholy, reverb-fueled edge to "Got Love If You Want It." Unfortunately, despite some wonderfully angry guitar work, "Got Love..." peters out at the end rather than driving to the sort of punchy finish that caps the best tracks on this disc.

The low point on The Wheel Man arrives with the ill-conceived a cappella track "Sawmill Holler." Slim never seems in full control of the song with many of the low notes simply missing the mark. It's not as though he's incapable of delivering the goods without the help of his band. Slim dishes up a spectacular vocal/harmonica call and response on "Jimmy Bell," turning the song into one of the highlights of the disc. "Sawmill Holler" on the other hand is a major disappointment and the album would have been stronger without it.

Thankfully Slim returns to form with the bawdy 12-bar blues of "Truck Driving Mama." "I thought you were driving solo, and that we'd make a real good team / I thought you was driving solo baby, and that we'd make a real good team / But then I heard you was blowing that other driver's air-horn, things ain't what they seem." Slim's band, The Workers, is in typically fine form on this track laying down an accompaniment that blazes without ever upstaging the star of the show.

If The Wheel Man had managed to hold its momentum through the final stretch this would be a blues essential, but the tail end of the album is not nearly as strong as the top end of the disc. "Rattlesnake," "Peaches" and the album's concluding track, "Judge Harsh Blues," are all well below the quality level set by the first 11 songs.

The guitar solo on "Peaches" works hard to elevate the song but Slim's vocals are uncharacteristically overwrought and shrill and a strong solo just isn't enough to salvage the track. And while "Judge Harsh Blues" is an intriguing minimalist piece, built exclusively from dobro and vocals, it doesn't have the sonic impact that ought to close out this disc. Instead one is left aching for the Workers and their vibrant contribution to Watermelon Slim's sound. A bit of a flat tire ending for The Wheel Man but with so much great blues music loaded at the front end this is a disc that blues fans will forgive for its relatively few flaws.

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review by
Gregg Thurlbeck

4 August 2007

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