REVIEW by Willard Manus

Big Jack Johnson is the real thing, a blues man with a downhome sound that could only come out of the deep south. Born in Mississippi, Johnson has paid his dues over the years, honing his craft in bars and juke joints, recording studios and blues festivals. Known for his rawly beautiful and honest singing style (and his work on a variety of string instruments), Johnson has worked hard in recent years to keep his career alive, touring with his band The Oilers for as many as 300 days a year.

Johnson has enjoyed a measure of success with M.C. Records, having signed with it in 1996. Lots of awards have come his way, and his first three records for the New York-based company have sold well. Now M.C. Records has sat Johnson down in the studio again and encouraged him to go back to his roots: just Johnson with his acoustic guitar backed up by harp and drums, with no overdubbing or fancy production tricks. Not only that, most songs were done in one or two takes.

The result is a new CD called THE MEMPHIS BARBECUE SESSIONS (so named because the studio was in Memphis, and Johnson and his trio scarfed down heaps of spicy barbecue between takes). Johnson sings five originals, one traditional number ("Get Along Little Cindy"), plus covers of classic songs by the likes of Elmore James and Little Walter. Each and every one of the 13 cuts is first-rate, even memorable, if only because Johnson is teamed up with one of the best harp players working today, Kim Wilson (of Fabulous Thunderbirds fame).

The work they do together is nothing short of miraculous, especially on Johnson's "Humming Bird," when Wilson makes his harmonica talk, cry, laugh, joke and get funky. Both artists are backed on piano from another blues legend, Pinetop Perkins. Sam Carr was supposed to be the drummer, but when he took ill just before the session, the owner of M.C. Records, Mark Carpentieri, stepped in as pinch-hitter.

Some might consider this CD too simple and oldfashioned; I rate it as blues at their best--pure, rich and spontaneous music from the heart.

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