Mississippi Fred McDowell – Live at the Gaslight (2000) VBR

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Fred McDowell was a one-man blues orchestra. Although sometimes playing in a trio setting, the recordings most considered ~classic~ consist of just him on voice and guitar, sometimes electric, sometimes acoustic. Like most, if not all, of his contemporaries in southern blues from the same era, he would cover all the bases with finesse and dexterity, supplying syncopated rhythms, counterpoint, and melody that can easily make you forget you are only listening to one person. Also like these contemporaries, McDowell was as comfortable playing uptempo as he was playing slow and mournful. He had what music critic Robert Palmer called ~deep blues~, and he had it in spades. There is an isomorphic unity to voice, word, and instrument here that has given me some insight as to why blues – really good blues, anyway – lifts my spirits when I feel I’ve reached my threshold for loneliness, regret, saudades.

Open tunings and bottleneck slide are also not exactly a novelty in southern blues, but McDowell stands out from his peers on this point for many reasons. His playing was extremely dynamic and gripping – precise when it called for precision, ragged and loose when the vibe called for it, subtle as a breeze or blunt as a hammer. Although I have yet to be disappointed by any of his recordings, and although I usually like my blues slow and smoldering, I have to mention how remarkable McDowell’s faster, uptempo material was. Urgent, full of fire, unhinged, building tension that begs for a release that never quite comes.

The material can become repetitive, especially on a long two-disk collection like this one, but there is corresponding trance-like magnetism as well created by that repetition. In the live performance documented here, McDowell is accompanied by a bassist (on fretless, I believe) who manages to be both unobtrusive and also to keep up with Fred’s tempo and meter changes that often confounded his occasional rhythm sections. By the second set, the audience is lit up enough to attempt clapping along to some numbers, which I find annoying but thankfully not obnoxious enough to the point of distraction. This is a worthy, perhaps even essential, document of Fred McDowell at the peak of his musical powers during the `blues revival` of the 1960s.

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Live at the Gaslight PART ONE

Live at the Gaslight PART TWO

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