Steve Howell and The Mighty Men are firmly rooted in the rural acoustic blues and traditional jazz of the American South. This newest release, Good As I Been To You, like its predecessors, takes classic blues and pop and, while keeping the ethos of the originals, gives them a shake and injects new life into some classics and some surprising choices.
Born in Marshall, Texas, Steve moved around the States before joining the navy, which resulted in a posting to Haverfordwest, South Wales, for 3 1/2 years. During this time, he played folk clubs in South Wales and the South of England. I would call Howell a musical historian as he obviously has a wealth of knowledge about the birth and development of the blues, and he uses this to carefully select the songs he is going to interpret.
The album opens with Bacon Fat written and originally recorded by Andre Williams in 1957, although this version owes more to the Sir Douglas Quintet cover from 1965. With an Alex Harvey like delivery, this blues meets R ’n’ B is blessed with perfect guitar picking…it matches this ‘reimagining’ brilliantly, as Steve speak/sings the verses and is joined by the band for the ‘diddly wop’ chorus. Led Belly’s superb When I was a Cowboy (Out on the Western Plains) is closer to Huddie’s original than, (some would say) the most recognised cover by Rory Gallagher. I say close to the original even though the Mighty’s employ electric guitar and they turn it into a duet with Katy Hobgood providing a great counterpoint. It still retains the pace and structure that Led Belly laid down. Howell even puts in a great guitar solo and this is now my preferred version! New Dirty Dozens sees Katy, quite rightly, take lead vocals for this Memphis Minnie cover. As with a lot of Minnie’s songs, the lyrics are an innuendo-filled delight. Take the lines, “Now the funniest thing I ever seen, tomcat jumping on a sewing machine; Sewing machine it run so fast, took 99 stitches in his yas, yas, yas” for example… make of that what you will. I love artists like Minnie who prove that the blues has a wicked sense of humour, and is not all sadness and despair. Katy does this track more than justice while the band injects a lively laziness to the backing (that oxymoron will make sense when you hear it). A surprise ‘pop’ song next as Steve delivers a remarkable version of the Greenfield/Miller composition, made famous by Gene Pitney in 1964. Steve’s version of It Hurts To Be In Love sounds like it was recorded in the 60s, but with a modern clarity: the jangling guitar solo is a case in point. His vocal wavers a bit, but it still fits with this reworking. Come Back Baby was first released in 1940 by Walter Davis and has seen covers by loads of people from BB King to Clapton to The Lords of Altamont! Here it becomes an acoustic master class in the early blues/soul fusion. The solo, however, is a beautiful laid back electric insertion. Blues in the Bottle is classed as ‘Traditional’ and first saw the light of day in 1928 on a recording by Prince Albert Hunt’s Texas Ramblers, although its most famous incarnation is probably the version by The Lovin’ Spoonful in 1965. This version is a little more countrified with an infectious, unexpected beat. Often attributed to Led Belly, Easy Rider is actually by Gertrude ‘Ma’ Rainey and first appeared in 1924. Always a cause of confusion, this is often confused with C C Rider or See See Rider. Whilst they are similar, the phrase ‘Easy Rider’ referred (in those days) to an unfaithful lover and, as often the case, the lyrics use plays on words so that easy can easily become see, see or C C. Either way, and lyrical variations aside, perceived wisdom is that they all stem from Ma Rainey’s original. The Mightys take it and give it a 60s pop ‘vibe’ with the layered guitars and then the vocals of Katy again making it hers (and making it truer to the original than any other version I have heard). Next up is another ‘pop’ song, this time a Crewe/Gaudio composition that was a hit for Frankie Valli in (again) 1965. The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore has such a recognisable refrain that this could easily wander into the land of mawkish… in this band’s hands, however, it certainly does not. Slower and way more subtle than Valli did it. Not my favourite here, but much better than the pop version. Bad Luck Blues was originally by Blind Lemon Jefferson and released in 1927: many have since covered it, but most notable for me, are the BB King and Janiva Magness versions. The timbre of the guitars on the intro is bang on target, and the rest follows a similar sympathetic attitude. Another picked solo (on electric) make it different while retaining the BLJ essence.
Lining Track is a traditional work song, but not the Led Belly, Bernie Marsden, Aerosmith one…this is also known as Lovers Is You Right and the first appearance of was on the famed Cortez Reece field recordings of 1949-53. Those recordings list Clarence Harmon as the performer, although nothing much is known about Clarence. This is a close interpretation as the band does it entirely in acapella and it is drenched in the history of this type of call and response type of song…it has a deep magic when you take on board the circumstances of the people who performed them and the massive impact they had on the music which followed. The final track is You’re Gonna Quit Me Baby by the wonderful Arthur Blind Blake: this one dates back to 1927 and has again been covered by many: perhaps most famously Bob Dylan, who also took the ‘Good As I Been To You’ line from this song and used it as an album title. It has a loose feel, reflecting Blake’s attraction for the ragtime piano motifs he integrated into his guitar playing. This version captures that essence and spirit perfectly!
So this is an album of supreme blues interpretation; few artists try to imbue their covers with the definitive spirit of the age in which they were conceived, but Howell and co. most certainly do, and they do it brilliantly. I could have done without the Franki Valli and maybe the Gene Pitney, but the rest is so startlingly good I will forgive them…this time! It is an album of education and discovery and deserves a listen.
NINEdoodle paws out of TEN …
When I Was a cowboy (Out on the Western Plains)
New Dirty Dozens
It Hurts to be in love
Come Back Baby
Blues in the Bottle
The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine (Anymore)
Bad Luck Blues
You’re Gonna Quit Me Baby
Steve Howell: acoustic and electric guitar and vocals
Chris Michaels: electric guitar and vocals
Dave Hoffpauir: drums and vocals
Jason Weinheimer: electric bass, organ and vocals
Katy Hobgood Ray and Dave Ray: vocals