Watermelon Slim & the Workers,
Watermelon Slim & the Workers
(Northern Blues, 2006)

"Well I'm too poor to pay attention, I'm too hungry to eat. Too sick to see my doctor. And I'm too tired to sleep. Hard times, hard times have come at last."

So begins Watermelon Slim's self-titled album, his third release, his first on the Toronto-based Northern Blues label. But if Slim is new to blues fans, the blues sure ain't new to Slim. William Homans, a.k.a. Watermelon Slim, has been shaping his approach to the blues since he first taught himself to play left-handed, backwards slide guitar while laid up in an Army hospital during his service in Vietnam. But years of driving trucks in order to support himself and his family delayed his arrival on the music scene. It was only after suffering a near fatal heart attack in 2002 that Homans came to the conclusion it was time to reassess his life's direction and follow his dream of creating his own brand of the blues. Big Shoes to Fill (2002) and Up Close & Personal (2003) led to a W.C. Handy Award nomination for Best New Artist Debut and an increasingly enthusiastic and devoted fan base.

Yet despite a new record deal and rave reviews Slim is bad-luck-blues through and through. Hard times seem to seep from the pores of every member of this tight ensemble. Producer Chris Wick has managed to capture all the wild energy Watermelon Slim has honed by playing the live blues circuit and has channeled it into a wonderfully crisp studio recording.

Despite its spontaneous feel, this is very much a studio album, one in which all the subtle nuances of Michael Newberry's percussion are allowed to spice up the songs as they simmer along under Slim's solid vocal command. Meanwhile, the combination of Ike Lamb's guitar chops and Watermelon Slim's inspired harmonica, dobro and slide guitar work manage to reinvent the blues at virtually every turn while never feeling less than completely familiar. And anchoring this wealth of musical charisma are Cliff Belcher's steady bass lines.

Of particular note on this disc is the heartfelt cover of the Big Joe Williams standard "Baby Please Don't Go." A tough track to truly energize due to the surplus of blues players and rockers who've covered it; rather than attempting any grand gestures to try to make the song his own, Watermelon Slim simply inhabits the song, wringing fresh emotion from every line.

Of the original tracks, "Devil's Cadillac," "Hard Times" and "Ash Tray" are particular standouts. All three are mid-tempo, slow-boil numbers that find their distinctive voice in the interplay between impassioned vocals and wailing electric slide guitar. It's the signature sound on this album, but thankfully Slim and the Workers aren't content to work only this fertile territory. Slim turns to acoustic slide, unaccompanied, on "Folding Money Blues" and the result is a dry, dusty blues that's perfectly matched to his vocals. The album closes with another solo track, "Eau De Boue," that pulls the album off for an unexpected trip to the bayou.

On first listen the novelty of Slim's mashed-potato-mouthed vocal style tends to wear less well on up-tempo tracks like "Check Writing Woman," where he seems to lag behind the song's driving pace. Rather uninspired guitar and harp breaks do little to salvage the track. Thankfully this theory is disproved by the sexually charged "Mack Truck" and the wonderfully tongue-in-cheek shuffle "Juke Joint Woman," in which the singer bemoans the fact that his woman is out clubbing every night while he sits home with the kids -- "Any fool out of kindergarten can see she just don't treat me right."

Certainly Watermelon Slim & the Workers are treating listeners right with this terrific album. And upon hearing it, "any fool out of kindergarten" will recognize that Watermelon Slim is a gifted musician who'll be breathing new life into the blues for years to come.

by Gregg Thurlbeck
24 June 2006

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