Joe Willie "Pinetop" Perkins is a blues music institution, an influential player with enough talent to play well beyond his boogie-woogie barrelhouse roots. Perkins has won so many W.C. Handy/Blues Music Awards for his skills that in 2006 The Blues Foundation just changed the name of the piano category award to the "Pinetop Perkins Piano Player of the Year."
Pinetop Perkins And Friends is the blues pianist's first album in three years, and a fine follow-up to his 2005 set On Top. Spend better than six decades performing the blues, and you'd have a list of friends as lengthy and impressive as Perkins, too. Collaborators here include well-known blues artists like B.B. King, Eric Clapton, and Jimmie Vaughan as well as respected, behind-the-scenes veteran players like Willie Kent, Bob Stoger, and Willie "Big Eyes" Smith.
Pinetop Perkins And Friends
Perkins and his pals romp through a mix of ten original songs and more than a few blues standards on Pinetop Perkins And Friends. These all-star players breathe new life into old chestnuts that every new blues band has to learn to be taken seriously, some of them antique when Perkins first climbed on a stage. Still, with a little help from his friends, Pinetop makes even the most familiar of these songs sound fresh and vital.
Kicking off with a Perkins' original, "Take It Easy Baby" is a blues stroll with shuffling ivories and fluid, elegant lead guitar courtesy of Mr. Jimmie Vaughan. Perkins' fingers are still nimble and fleet, dancing across the keys, while his voice retains the warm and character it had 20, 30 years ago.
Revisiting Muddy Waters
Muddy Waters' Chicago blues classic "Got My Mojo Working," which Perkins has no doubt performed thousands of times since he backed Waters in the late-1960s/early-70s, is s spry cover of the song with vigorous piano-pounding and Pinetop's reckless vocals. Guitarist Eric Sardinas is on hand here, and while I could do without his hoarse backing vocals, his sweet National Steel Resonator guitar slips-and-slides through the song with serpentine menace.
Another familiar Waters' tune, "Hoochie Coochie Man," is a strutting, swaggering exercise in blues braggadocio. Although Perkins' voice is nowhere near as effective as the master's, his understated vocal delivery and rolling piano play adds to the song's elemental power. Vaughan drops by once more to add some of his phenomenal six-string tone, while bassist Bob Stoger and drummer Willie Smith provide a rhythmic backbone stronger than titanium and funkier than a mosquito's tweeter....
Sweet Home Chicago
Perkins' "Down In Mississippi" mixes Delta juke-joint blues with New Orleans-styled barrelhouse piano, the song rollin'-n-tumblin' out of your speakers like greased lightning. Blues legend B.B. King sits in the lead guitar seat, providing his delicious single-note leads and pitching in on vocals. The song's homesick lyrics are both heartfelt and insightful, but the song's place is really as a musical showcase for the enormous chops of Pinetop Perkins and B.B. King.
The slower-paced "How Long Blues/Come Back Baby" mash-up features some of Pinetop's best piano work, combining both subtlety and bluster within the same song. Nora Jean Brusco shares vocals with Perkins', belting out the lyrics with joyous energy, while guest guitarist Eric Clapton layers in note-after-note of deliberate, beautifully-toned six-string leads.
The familiar "Sweet Home Chicago" is an unfettered blues romp, with Pinetop and some of his Windy City mates roaring through the song like an out-of-control tornado. With guitarist "Little Frank" Krakowski providing some swinging fretwork and Brusco adding her brassy voice behind Perkins' expressive vocals, the song literally sways back and forth to the rhythm.
The Reverend's Bottom Line
Anytime you find one of these all-star conglomerations, it's a 50/50 chance that the album is going to be worth your time and investment. Not so with Pinetop Perkins And Friends, a spirited collection of rock-solid performances that pay honor not only to Perkins, the ringmaster, but also to the history of the Chicago blues.
Even in his nineties, Perkins continues to play with zeal and dedication, and his voice is still an expressive instrument. Bottom line: if you like old-school blues with plenty of piano and guitar to lively things up, Pinetop Perkins And Friends should have a place on your stereo. (Stoneagle Music/Telarc Records, released June 3, 2008)