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Music Review: JW-Jones – Midnight Memphis Sun

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The bulk of Canadian bluesman JW-Jones’ sixth album Midnight Memphis Sun may have been recorded in Memphis’ famed Sun Studios but it’s a different Memphis sound that permeates “Off The Market.”  The bright horn section and backing vocal arrangement evoke the Stax sound.  Even Jones’ guitar has shades of a sped up Albert King guitar solo.  From the outset he makes clear the city and traditional blues styles are on his mind.

Charlie Musselwhite guests on several tracks and his sweet harmonica accents give “Kissin’ In Memphis,” a pleasant tribute to the great blues heritage of the city that doubles as a love song, an air of authenticity.  The novelty of namedropping famous artists in song is getting old but Jones shouldn’t be blamed for a conceit run into the ground long before he employed it.  His guitar leads are more restrained than on “Off The Market” and fit the relaxed, good time vibe of this song.  “Burnt Child” is another track featuring Musselwhite and here the guest star steals the show.  The song isn’t remarkable but that great harp gives it a spark it otherwise lacks.

Taking fellow Canadian Bryan Adams’ hit ’80s single “Cuts Like A Knife” and reimagining it as a blues shuffle is a cute idea but the song is ordinary FM fodder and Jones’ vocal lacks the conviction to make this more than a novelty.  This sounds like an experiment to see if it can be done rather than an engaged commitment to take a song outside the blues canon and make it work.

In addition to Musselwhite, the great Hubert Sumlin joins Jones on MMS.  Sumlin’s playing on “Born Operator” lacks the distinctive edge typical of his classic work with Howlin’ Wolf but he gives a nice accent for Jones to play off and the guitars lock in nicely, giving this a highly enjoyable retro sound.  On “Howlin’ With Hubert,” Jones and Sumlin lock in even tighter and Sumlin’s work has more of that familiar edge.  Some guitar pairings turn competitive and kill the song in the name of ego but that doesn’t happen here.  Each player steps aside and gives the other room and they trade licks that complement rather than compete.

Jones comes up short the one time he tries going hard on his own on “Mean Streak.”  The guitar snarls and bites nicely but Jones isn’t up to the task as a vocalist.  He tries to put a little edge in his voice but it doesn’t work.  He doesn’t give a full throttle effort to remake himself in the mold of Wolf or one of those vocalists who summoned that power at will and it’s probably best that his reach is tepid because it just isn’t in him to deliver that kind of vocal. He has an agreeable, tuneful voice that won’t turn listeners away but lacks the grit and character to interpret complex, emotionally charged material.  Jones is a gifted player, though, and he stands on his own quite well on “Right On Time.”  The guitar lead is hot and the song builds as Jesse Whiteley’s strong organ fills, horns, and backing vocals are folded in.

This is a pleasant listen that benefits from some great guestwork from a pair of Hall of Famers.  Jones himself seems better suited for work as a sideman or band member who contributes a few strong originals and steps in for a spot vocal here and there rather than trying to carry an entire album on his own.  Midnight Memphis Sun is a solid outing from a talented performer but one that never fully takes off.

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About Josh Hathaway