The Soul of John Black is the musical alter-ego of multi-instrumental talent John Bigham. The guitarist and keyboardist spent eight years touring and recording with the popular funk-rock-ska outfit Fishbone, and further honed his chops by working with a diverse range of talents like Miles Davis, Dr. Dre, Eminem, and Nikka Costa.
To record Black John, his Eclecto Groove debut, Bigham enlisted a like-minded crew of musicians, veterans of a thousand and one nights playing with folks like the Black Crowes, Ben Harper, Nikka Costa, Sheryl Crow, and Beck. Captured mostly live in the studio, the album sounds like little that you've heard before.
The Soul of John Black's Black John
Bigham pursues a rather loose definition of the blues with Black John, blending healthy chunks of soul, funk, and rock in the mixer alongside his Delta grit. The album-opening title track, for instance, is a folk-blues tale of old-school, Southern-style vengeance delivered with gospel fervor, a funky guitar line that would do Johnny Watson proud, and a backbeat like nobody's business. Bigham's six-string solos are an exhilarating cross between Jimi Hendrix and Ernie Isley, with a little juice of his own making thrown in for good measure.
The rest of Black John plays in a similarly sweet vein, a throwback to the early-1970s when electrified Chicago blues collided with the loose-limbed funk sound of the era, with classic R&B hanging right around the corner. This is the kind of album that Chess Records wanted to make with Electric Mud, but although ol' Muddy had the mileage under his belt, he didn't have the funk in his heart like Bigham, and Waters didn't have the benefit of absorbing classic influences like Sly Stone, Larry Graham, Bootsy Collins, and even Prince, as is evidenced by the hardcore groove of Black John.
Not Your Daddy's Blues
The band does a fine job of mixing up the tempos here, yet still managing to tie the material together under a unified sound. Lyrically, "Ever Changin' Emotions" is pure heartbroken blues, musically delivered above a syncopated rhythm with Bigham's soulful vocals up front, and subtle keyboard flourishes behind. "White Dress" is a nasty lil' bit of Southern-fried funk, with a greasy, hypnotic Mississippi Hill Country rhythm providing a heavy bottom line to Bigham's lusty vocals. Adam McDougal's keyboard riffs fly around in the background, white delicious backing harmonies create an overwhelming, claustrophobic vibe.
Guitarist Bill Bottrell lends his slinky slide-guitar to the mid-tempo "Better Babe," his wiry leads a fine counterpoint to Bigham's soulful vocals and the song's big-beat rhythms. "Holiday Inn" successfully mixes a classic R&B sound (think Al Green's Memphis soul) with lush instrumentation that brings Isaac Hayes' early-1970s albums to mind. Bigham throws listeners another curve with the closing "Thinking About You," an almost folkish ballad with filigree fretwork and soaring, heartfelt vocals. It's a beautiful song, finely-crafted, and entirely out-of-character with the previous 48 minutes of the album...which, in a nutshell, is what The Soul of John Black is all about.
The Reverend's Bottom Line
What can I say? This ain't yer daddy's blues, but it just might be to your children's liking. The Soul of John Black, with John Bigham a/k/a John Black in the director's chair, has taken bits and pieces of classic Chicago blues, 1960s-era soul, '70s funk, and rock from across the spectrum to create an exciting, and entirely unique sound that is at once both comfortably familiar and still breathtakingly fresh and new.
No, nothing here is traditional sounding, but it's all foot-shuffling, rump-shaking good fun...which is the sort of juke-joint jive that Charley Patton and Son House designed in the first place. (Eclecto Groove Records, released February 17, 2009)