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Music Review: Omar Kent Dykes – Big Town Playboy

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Omar Kent Dykes assembled a dream cast of primarily Texas-based musicians for On The Jimmy Reed Highway, his titular tribute to the oft-overlooked bluesman who, at his peak, routinely outsold the likes of Muddy, Wolf, and every other revered figure in the blues.

The disc was a smashing success (by blues standards), and virtually everyone is back on board for the follow up, again presided over by Dykes and producer/guitarist Derek O’Brien. That means guest turns from the likes of James Cotton, Jimmy Vaughan, Lou Ann Barton, and Lazy Lester, all backed by a solid core of Austin’s finest (O’Brien, an underrated but brilliant guitarist, along with Wes Starr on drums and bassist Ronnie James) who have an intuitive feel for Reed’s patented lazy but irresistible shuffle.

There are only two Reed songs this time out (“Mary Mary,” Reed’s tribute to his long-suffering wife and musical helper, and “Close Together,” here a duet between Dykes and Barton, whose Texas drawl seems deeper than ever), but both opener “Big Town Playboy” and “Up Side Your Head” were written by Reed’s long-time sideman, Eddie Taylor. (Some say Taylor was the true architect of the famous Reed shuffle; it eventually led to bad blood between the two).

Other highlights include the Jimmy McCracklin anti-cheating opus, “Think” (another duet) and Ivory Joe Hunter’s immortal “Since I Met You Baby,” along with a pair of swamp-blues ditties from Slim Harpo (the classic “King Bee” and the lesser-known grinder “Dream Girl”).  And Reed didn’t write it, but it was he who made the menacing “Man Down There” famous.

As expected from a cast of this calibre, performances throughout are absolutely stellar in an old-school way, meaning an intangible but unmistakable feel is preferred over flash or technical brilliance. Dykes reigns in his Wolfman-Jack inspired vocals, but he still sounds as though he gargles with broken glass and rotgut whiskey. Cotton’s showing his age, and Lester has never been about perfection.  But while it sounds simple, Reed’s music is deceptive, and few can deliver it with such relaxed assurance and sheer finesse as this esteemed assemblage.

If one quibbles, the same complaint that dogged Reed could apply here; virtually everything he ever recorded employed a similar lazy shuffle beat, with little variation. But Reed lived in a world of singles, with scant thought given to collective impact. And given his notorious proclivity for drink (an epileptic, he was often so inebriated that wife Mary would sit beside him and feed him lyrics he couldn’t remember, on stage and in the studio), it’s no surprise he kept things simple and straightforward. And that 'Jimmy Reed shuffle' is, after all, an integral element in the blue tapestry …

Raw and unpolished (exactly as the blues should be), Big Town Playboy is another revelatory trip down the Jimmy Reed highway courtesy of Dykes and company. It’s a fine ride indeed …

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