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Arhoolie (ARHCD544)

Rollin' And Tumblin', Guitar Rag, Harmonica Wobble #2, Shotgun Blues, HowellDevine Boogie Woogie, Help Me, Soft Steel Piston, Spoonful, Mellow Down Easy, KC Blues, Mighty Long Time, Write Me A Few Of Your Lines

Arhoolie is one of those labels that provide a near-guarantee of quality. You might not always know the artist, the album title or the style of music under consideration but you can be sure that whatever it is, anything on Arhoolie will only have been released if it has met their own infallible in-house standards of taste, integrity and genuine enthusiasm for the variety of folk music indigenous to the Americas.

It is therefore quite a significant event when they released this CD recently with the claim that it is their first new release of original blues recordings for some 20 years. That is quite a billing, particularly if, like HowellDevine, you don't have a well established track record to back it up.

Fortunately, any doubts or fears are extinguished within the first few bars of the opener, a version of Rollin' And Tumblin' played with a Mississippi Hill Country-style slide guitar straight out of the Fred McDowell or RL Burnside textbook. By the end of the song, you just know you are in good company eagerly looking forward to the rest of the album.

With covers of other blues standards such as Help Me, Spoonful, Mellow Down Easy, Mighty Long Time and more, it would be easy to assume that you know what you are in for here. However, despite the familiarity of some of these songs, what you get is so much different to a typical modern-day blues band fronted by a hot blues guitar player. I'm still not sure if these guys are blues band playing blues songs as though they were a jazz band. They could just be a jazz band playing blues songs as though they were a blues band. Either way, this really swings and the instrumentation and interplay throughout the album is something else and mightily impressive.

Nowhere is this more in evidence than on Harmonica Wobble #2, an instrumental that starts as a harmonica-driven blues, introduces a honking R&B sax and then a barely-conceivable bass solo (only a jazz  band would try this out, right?) before heading for the hills with the harmonica in the driving seat, seeing us out to the end of an all-to-brief six and a half minute highlight.

So who are these guys? Well, the singer, guitarist and harp blower is Joshua Howell, the drummer and washboard man is Pete Devine and the trio is completed by an assortment of guys on upright bass (dependent I guess on who was right for each song or available for each recording session). And that's pretty much all I know!

Despite the vagueness of the band, I can't recall the last time I heard a CD and knew from the get-go that it was the business (and been proven right). Try it yourself, I reckon you'll think the same!

Review Date: April 2013

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