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Catfish Keith Catfish Keith
Album: Mississippi River Blues
Label: Fishtail
Tracks: 14

It would be so simple to just pen this review in driving test mode; it might go something like this:

"Acoustic blues pioneer Catfish Keith's 16th album is everything you expect from this guy, both more of the same and yet better, brilliant guitaristic virtuosity and flair both informing and complemented by his on-fire, enthused, totally "into-it" vocal delivery." But hell, such clipped brevity don't do the man justice, no sir. So here's a few hundred more words in praise of Mister Catfish - the real deal - and his stonking new album.

Now just in case you've not yet fallen under that ol' Catfish spell, here's some biog: since age 6, he's been settled in Davenport, Iowa, so it follows that "the mighty Mississippi, with all of its ghosts and legends, is at the heart of his life and musical heritage, with wellsprings of powerful, timeless music…" (Bravo, that liner note writer!) Four decades of devotion to the cause, then - full-blown immersion in the bottomless pit of deepest blues, gospel and roots music, that endless treasure trove. That's how come he can come up with fresh stuff every album, taking in both time-honoured and undeservedly obscure repertoire classics and even finding time and inspiration to pen authentically configured originals too. So all those usual arguments about how boring is a whole hour's worth of 12-bar blues, or do we really need to hear yet another version of this or that blues classic - they just fly straight outa that window in Catfish's company, as he just keeps on reinventing the music. And how! For as he puts it: "music for me is like a time machine, taking me back to the beginnings of when it first appeared in recordings … What holds all of this together in my mind is the sounds of the guitars themselves, and all of the infinite and oddball possibilities. … There is so much magic when all the parts are coming from one guitar… I love it!" (And that you can tell.)

One guitar it may be, but what a sound - or in this case eight different instruments, each one with its own special personality and unique resonance, and each carefully chosen for the song after hours of pre-studio tryout in different tunings or keys, "to see what works best". So Catfish has a choice between six- and 12-string and resonators, and can move between techniques (fingerpick or bottleneck slide) and playing styles with consummate ease. Non-guitar-nerds might be tempted to skip this sentence, but FYI four tracks are played on those gorgeous resophonic National Baritone Tricones, two on the baritone 12-string, one apiece on the Fairbanks F10, the Radio Tone Bendaway and Ark New Era and five on the famous Santa Cruz Catfish Special - which leaves one track (Johnny Horton's Sleepy-eyed John) played in a "little bitty old-time banjo" style on the Resolele, a resophonic ukulele prototype (a first on a Catfish record). Those doing the math will perceive that this all adds up to 15 - the explanation is that Catfish plays two different guitars on Please, Baby, a mellow, really cool Mississippi Sheiks love song that features doubletracked voice too. It's always a thing with Catfish that the most attention-grabbing numbers feature a baritone instrument, and the sheer power and resonance of these just literally stuns the listener into submission - when all there's left to do is to luxuriate in the groove. Take for instance the two "hypnotic-high"-related songs, Bea Foote's Weed and Curtis Jones' heavy-duty drag Reefer Hound, both done on the baritone 12-string, a sound of almost hallucinogenic opulence.

Those songs played on the Catfish Special exhibit all the foot-stompin' "twang and wiggle" that provides the Catfish signature - there's Frank Stokes' It Won't be Long Now, the Jimmie Rodgers-penned title track and the jumpin' hot Catfish original Telling You, Pretty Mama. And a superbly delicate harmonics-rich take on the Elizabeth Cotton gem Shake Sugaree to close the set. Two standouts for me are the sanctified J.B. Lenoir number The Whale Swallowed Jonah (which features some animated percussive fretboard-tapping as well as brilliantly precise intonation from the Fairbanks) and a beautifully registered instrumental rendition of the Oaxacan waltz Canción Mixieca (famously heard on the Paris Texas soundtrack). Other highlights come with the fresh Catfish takes on Just Can't Keep From Cryin' Sometimes and John Hurt's Candyman; the latter a particularly persuasive demonstration of the deliciously playful humour in Catfish's vocal reinterpretation, entirely matching, and matched by, that very quality in his playing.

In which connection I can't go by without a plaudit for Luke Tweedy's truly excellent recording, which really brings it all on home in giving us the complete Catfish, that all-in-one interaction between man and body (vocal chords, fingers and feet), pure and unadulterated, in believable closeup but with room to breathe in a wholly natural image and sense of perspective.

This is absolutely one of the sexiest blues-roots albums you'll hear. For by not even half a minute into the first cut, the Catfish's got you on his hook, and you can't let go, nor do you ever want to. Well I sure don't!

David Kidman