Big Daddy Wilson,
Neckbone Stew
(Ruf, 2017)

Neckbone Stew arrived not long ago in a package from the venerable German blues-rock-and-roots label Ruf. Till that moment, I had never heard of Big Daddy Wilson. I learned subsequently that's because he records and lives in Germany with a wife he met during his military service in that country.

Of course on one level he's hardly the only Europe-based American bluesman ever known. Yet the others tended to be fully formed, multiply recorded artists before they left the United States for expanded performance opportunities (along with, inevitably, respite from the unrelenting pressures of 20th-century American racism). Wilson, on the other hand, learned the music from, it says here, "the German blues scene." He observes that he was not exposed to blues in his early life as an African-American kid in rural Virginia because his devout, protective parents sheltered him from any but church music.

However unlikely the path to the destination, Wilson proves on Neckbone Stew, cut in Italy, that he has a natural affinity for the genre: a warm voice, strong songs, lively (often acoustic-based) arrangements, a compelling delivery of the material. In the fashion of the most convincingly accomplished 21st-century blues artists, he synthesizes some traditionally defining styles in a few songs, while he focuses on a single approach in others, notably the delightful neo-Piedmont blues "Cross Creek Road," which opens the recording, and the moving gospel tune "He'll Make a Way."

Compounding the improbability of the album's success, the accompanying musicians are all Europeans except for Eric Bibb and Ruthie Foster, who show up as guests on separate cuts. Foster appears to particularly powerful effect on a cover of Tracy Chapman's gruff, tough-minded "Give Me One Reason." Otherwise, all of the songs are credited to somebody named "Blount," no first name, in most cases in collaboration with "Nolli," who turns out to be multi-instrumentalist and ubiquitous presence Cesare Nolli.

For all kinds of reasons, at least to my understanding of how these things are supposed to be, this shouldn't work. That it does work, and that it also communicates such joy, is no small miracle, a testament both to the musicians and to the power of the kind of blues you can't fake.

music review by
Jerome Clark

11 February 2017

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