Stephen King has a short story called “I’ve Been To Rock & Roll Heaven And You Know They’ve Got A Hell Of A Band.” It’s a great story told as only King can in which travelers make their way to the hallowed ground where all the rock stars who left too soon dwell in the afterlife. The great Muddy Waters was no rock and roller but he wrote that fantastic song “The Blues Had A Baby And They Named It Rock & Roll” and he, too, had one hell of a band. I’m not talking about people who got to stand on stage with Mud but people who actually logged serious miles on the road and hours in the studio. We’d all be poorer if the totality of the blues recordings were limited only to Waters and his protégés but you’d be surprised at how rich we would still be.
James Cotton wasn’t the first great harp player to blow for Waters’ band – he did actually play harp on the aforementioned “Blues Had A Baby” from Hard Again — and many will always prefer Little Walter Jacobs, but Mr. Superharp weaved many signature lines into the work of one of the idiom’s all time greats. Those songs and the harp work of Cotton have been listened to, danced to, studied, and copied by legions of blues harp players who followed.
There is a reason to invoke the name of Waters and his career as a sideman when discussing Giant, a fitting title for a man whose work adorns some of the greatest songs in blues history in addition to the career he had as a bandleader and entertainer in the years between stints with Waters. Three of the album’s 12 songs are Waters covers and a fourth song – “That’s All Right” – was penned by another former Waters sideman, the great Jimmy Rogers.
There is also no escaping the feeling this sounds a lot more like an album featuring James Cotton than a James Cotton record whether looking at the sum or the individual parts. Health issues and age have robbed Cotton of what was a limited vocal range to begin with. Cotton’s harp is prominent and heard throughout the record but there is rarely a sense that he and it are really at center stage, instead opting for more of an ensemble approach to the record. He relies on his bandmates to carry the vocal load and generously gives them room to strut their stuff. That generosity and reliance moves Cotton off to the side, which, of course, doesn’t mean this can’t be enjoyed, or that it isn’t good but it is something listeners should know going in to avert or dampen possible disappointment. Slam Allen handles vocals on nine of the 10 vocal tracks and shares guitar duties with Tom Holland, who sings lead on “Sad Sad Day.” Backing them are bassist Noel Neal and drummer Kenny Neal, Jr. Those four create a sturdy foundation and deep grooves and then stand back and step aside for one another.
Cotton’s harp rides over a hard groove on “Change” with some funk riffing by Holland and Allen. “Find Yourself Another Fool” rides a bumping bass line from Noel Neal and together these guys rock the blues without ever crossing over into blues-rock. Allen’s vocal pleasantly balances soul and blues grit and Cotton takes a brief solo. Tempos shift and rhythms alternate between plodding blues rhythms and harder edged fare, never becoming anything less than enjoyable but rarely becoming essential. The two instrumental tracks – “With The Quickness” and “Blues For Koko” – stand as two of the more exciting moments on the record, feeling fresher than the other material. One Giant misstep is the cover of “How Blue Can You Get?,” a song made famous by B.B. King (later sampled by Primitive Radio Gods in “Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth With Money In My Hand, a minor ’90s hit). Whether it’s Noel Neal’s misplaced modern bass thump or the hammed-up vocals from Allen at the song’s climax, they’d have been better leaving this one alone.
Giant is an appealing, solid album that neither enhances nor detracts from the Cotton legacy.