You think you’ve seen bands taking the whole retro thing seriously before. It’s one thing to wear the clothes, use the vintage instruments or amps, sing of anachronistic situations or experiences. But the Cash Box Kings go above and beyond the call of the past they never lived through. Believe it or not, the Cash Box Kings are so blatantly retro they don’t even have a Wikipedia page.
Alright, they do have their own website, but that’s because they’re not stupid. There has to be some way for newcomers to find out something about the band. Visit it, and you can find quotations from reviews published on actual ink and paper which reveal that this Chicago band is revered for its ability to recreate the various strains of Mississippi Delta and Chicago blues which helped shape our culture. Over the last decade plus, the Cash Box Kings have released a half dozen albums, and played hundreds of live shows, honing their ability to put a personal stamp on the music of the past. Many players have passed through the ranks, but harmonica player and singer Joe Nosek and his fellow vocalist Oscar Wilson have been stalwarts.
The Cash Box Kings' Holler and Stomp
Holler and Stomp should bring greater recognition to the band, as it is released on the bigger blues indie label Blind Pig. So naturally enough, as befits a group retro enough to not have a solid marketing plan, it is a project dedicated not strictly to the Chicago brand of deep electric blues which has earned them their reputation. Not to worry, however. An album of songs connecting the dots between country blues, country music, and the Chicago juke joints of the 1940s is strong enough to win over new fans.
Five of the twelve songs here are written by Nosek. He’s a particularly effective songwriter, capable of doing more than just rearranging the basic tropes of countless blues songs before him. For one thing, he’s got an ear for strong, consistently catchy hooks, making sure that his songs stick to the brain after only a couple listens. The title track kicks off the record in fine fashion with an irresistible country blues groove built on sharp slide guitar licks provided by Joel Paterson, who is outstanding throughout the record. Nosek’s harp shines bright, and the chorus insinuates itself very quickly.
Fraulein on Paulina
“Fraulein on Paulina” is even more fun. Presumably, Paulina is a street that Chicagoans may recognize, but for the rest of us, it’s part of a crazy-sounding catchy phrase, made even nuttier as Nosek keeps singing “frauleina” instead of “fraulein.” Paterson’s liquid guitar licks fit stunningly into the song, and Nosek’s harp solo is thick and nasty. “Sara” is built on a constantly repeated blues riff which is relieved after a while by two short lines outside the blues form. Nosek also offers two nifty instrumentals, the borderline parody of “Hayseed Strut,” with Paterson showing off his acoustic chops and bassist Jimmy Sutton slapping the heck out of his stand-up instrument; and the slickly explosive dance number which closes the record, “Tribute to the Black Lone Ranger.”
Paterson contributes “That’s My Gal,” a Slim Harpo pastiche which is sung/spoken beautifully by Oscar Wilson. Wilson is a veteran of the Chicago blues scene who has uncanny powers as a mimic, yet who always sounds like himself at the same time. So, yes, he’s nailing Harpo’s ability to drolly tell a tale, but he sounds positively thrilled to tell us “that’s my gal.” And the band puts down a reverb-heavy groove that could last all night. Wilson himself wrote “Barnyard Pimp,” a hilarious country blues comparing down-home food availability at home and abroad.
Off The Hook
Wilson also sings “Off the Hook,” a song which pays back the Rolling Stones influence borrowed from Chicago blues. Here’s one of those anachronisms I mentioned earlier – you can’t write a song about a telephone being busy because it’s fallen off the hook any more. At any rate, Wilson has fun showing off a style that Jagger aspired to achieve, and the band perfectly emulates the sound the Stones tried so hard to capture. A cover of Lightnin’ Hopkins’ slow blues “Katie Mae” gives Wilson another chance to shine. And Wilson does a terrific job mixing his own style with nods to Muddy Waters on that titan’s “Feel Like Going Home,” one of the most country songs in his repertoire. Even adding harp, bass, and drums to Paterson’s Waters-influenced slide guitar, there is a great open space in this recording which matches the original.
Bassist Sutton takes over vocals for rockabilly singer Ray Sharpe’s “Oh My Baby’s Gone.” The Cash Box Kings sound playful here, slowing the song down to a bluesy feel but leaving Sutton’s rockabilly-influenced wails intact. And then to push the country connection further, Nosek sings Hank Williams’ “Blues Come Around.” Of course, Williams had an intrinsic bluesiness in much of his music, but it’s nice to be reminded that blues and country music have historically had more in common than most people think.
Steve's Bottom Line
The Cash Box Kings just don’t seem capable of making a wrong move. They have humor, invention, respect, and skill going for them, making Holler and Stomp a completely enjoyable blues experience. By going back further into the music’s roots, and exploring areas not normally considered part of the blues repertoire, they have expanded the possibilities of retro bands. Just don’t look for them on any Internet-based encyclopedic tomes. (Blind Pig Records, released October 4, 2011)
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