Blues tribute albums are risky business. On one end of the spectrum, an artist can go wrong by hewing too close to the original renditions of the songs, thereby making their own versions irrelevant. On the other, they can veer too far afield of the source material in an attempt for freshness, and end up sounding disrespectful. It's a fine line the careful performer must walk to create a tribute disc that finds the right balance.
Charley Patton, of course, was the pioneering Delta bluesman who was the music's first real "star." From the mid-1920s through his death in 1934, Patton was a popular attraction at juke joints and a massive success on record, eventually coming to influence a whole generation of blues artists in the Delta and beyond. His recordings predated Robert Johnson's by the better part of a decade, and it's a fair assumption that little of today's blues would sound the way it does if Patton hadn't existed. His loud, boisterous performances paved the way for everyone from Son House to Howlin' Wolf.
Reverend Peyton's Peyton On Patton
Reverend Peyton and his Big Damn Band are a threesome from Indiana centered around the ragged guitar and deep-throated vocals of Josh Peyton. The group has slowly and steadily built up a following during the past decade, performing at venues ranging from blues festivals to the Warped Tour and releasing a series of increasingly popular albums, such as 2008's The Whole Fam Damnily and 2010's The Wages. Now, Peyton has issued an album of songs originated by Patton, who he describes as his musical hero. Recorded in a single day, Peyton on Patton mostly features just Peyton and his guitar. Wife Breezy Peyton and percussionist Aaron Persinger, both vital to the Big Damn Band's live shows, are relegated to a couple tracks each.
Peyton manages to tread the line between imitation and experimentalism well. His gruff, husky holler is particularly well suited to Patton's material; he does indeed, true to his stage name, sound like a singing preacher, a factor that works in favor of the several religious-themed songs he covers here. While not many people can match Patton's dexterity on guitar, Peyton's pinprick slide guitar and percussive finger-picking do the job quite well across the album's 13 tracks.
Some Of These Days I'll Be Gone
The disc is framed by three drastically different versions of a single Charley Patton song: "Some Of These Days I'll Be Gone." The first is a straightforward reading on acoustic guitar; the second, on banjo, speeds along like a freight train out of control, aided by Persinger, who provides percussion on a 100-year-old tobacco barrel; and the third features Peyton's intricate slide work. In less able hands, this could come across as overkill, but Peyton makes it work. It helps that each version – and indeed, nearly every track on the album – runs barely two minutes in length.
"Mississippi Boweavil Blues" features more slide guitar, with a dissonant little lick at the end of each melodic line upping the musical interest. "Elder Greene Blues" recalls the gently rolling rhythms of Mississippi John Hurt, with Breezy on harmony vocals adding color to what might otherwise be a rather monochromatic recording. "Tom Rushen Blues" is a 12-bar piece whose strong vocal hook consists of Peyton drawing out the final vowels in each lyrical line. And "A Spoonful Blues" is a lightning-speed two-chord stomp that's over in a minute and a half.
Of the religion-themed songs, "Prayer of Death Pt. 1" and "You're Gonna Need Someone When You Come to Die" are the most powerful. The former opens with a hymnlike instrumental melody on bottleneck guitar before transforming into a complex finger-picking pattern. The latter breaks in the middle for a spoken-word evangelical sermon, the Reverend spitting out words like his mouth's on fire. It's an utterly transfixing moment.
Ken's Bottom Line
The album doesn't overstay its welcome; it runs barely 30 minutes from start to finish. The songs fly by in a flash, making sure that the listener's attention doesn't wander. It's a technique that Patton himself would likely have approved of: If anything, the Delta bluesman knew a thing or two about keeping his audience entertained. Peyton on Patton is a fine, fitting tribute to one of the blues' most crucial figures – a true American original. (Side One Dummy Records, released August 9, 2011)
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