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Music Review: Pinetop Perkins & Willie ‘Big Eyes’ Smith – Joined At The Hip

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There are two important things to remember about the blues. First and foremost, it’s about feel – an intangible but absolutely essential quality – rather than musical perfection. And second, unlike its offspring, rock ‘n’ roll, blues values experience. It’s music about life, generally best delivered by those who’ve been around the block a time or two.

Pinetop Perkins and Willie ‘Big Eyes’ Smith have definitely been around – Perkins was born in 1913, Smith in 1936. They’ve been playing blues longer than many of their listeners have been alive, and both spent time with Muddy Waters, a giant of the genre who helped establish the palette for the ensemble sound that defines Chicago blues today. They’ve been working together on and off ever since, with well over 40 years of shared musical history ensuring they’re telepathically tight on stage and in the studio.

It follows, then, that the two esteemed gentlemen know their way around a 12-bar tune, and the supporting cast assembled by producer Michael Freeman is equally adept. Smith, formerly one of the best shuffle drummers around, here hands drum duties to his son, Kenny ‘Beady Eyes’ Smith, who’s every bit dad’s equal at capturing that lazy but urgent beat that gives the best blues such irresistible momentum. That leaves the elder Smith free to blow wheezy but unfailingly effective harmonica (his first instrument) and deal with lead vocal duties, while Perkins continues to defy the ages with sprightly and sparkling piano work, anchored by one of the best left hands to ever tickle the blue ivories. Also on board is another Waters alum, bassist Bob Stroger, with Chicago stalwart John Primer (who also spent time with Waters) and relative newcomer ‘Little Frank’ Krakowski handling guitars. It’s a dream band indeed, powerful yet supple, slipping easily into each groove with intuitive ease.

Although Smith takes credit for six of the disc’s thirteen tracks, with Perkins contributing one, the majority of the material does tend to sound familiar – there are no real musical surprises here (And it’s kind of hard to imagine a 74-year old man advising a potential conquest to “talk to your mama” – but hey, that’s tradition, and Willie the composer has lived with this stuff for a long time!). The beauty is in the execution, the relaxed and righteously ragged delivery that seems so easygoing yet packs such a potent punch. Pinetop’s not quite as dazzling these days, perhaps, but his touch remains impeccable. Willie’s harmonica is raspy in all the right ways, exuberantly expressive rather than technically precise, and his vocals are much the same. There are better singers around, to be sure, but few who can convey as much feeling with such seemingly effortless yet unquestionable authority.

And with both surprisingly spry and remarkably young at heart, Joined At The Hip is a disc that fairly bursts with life. From opener “Grown Up To Be A Man” through the cover of Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Eyesight To The Blind” that bookends the collection, Willie and Pinetop deliver an object lesson in playing the blues, with exquisite support – intricate yet never obtrusive – from the cast of seasoned pros. There are no dizzying displays of instrumental prowess or over-the-top pyrotechnics. It’s all done with distinctly grownup good taste, unpretentious and unassuming yet absolutely riveting in its down-to-earth honesty.

Smith and Perkins have both earned their place in the pantheon of blues greats, and like the greatest in any field of human endeavor, they make it all seem easy. Both men are masters at their craft, and this collaboration is an out-and-out masterpiece. Utterly essential …!

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