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Music Review: Scissormen – Big Shoes: Walking and Talking the Blues

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You can’t say the Scissormen lack confidence. For one matter, they’re not exactly a brand-name, but their fifth release is a two disc set, both a live CD and a DVD documentary from film maker Robert Mugge. For another, the hard-driving group is made up of only two members, Ted Drozdowski (guitars and vocals) and R.L. Hulsman (drums and percussion). Lastly, as they proclaim in the album’s title song, “Big Shoes,” they believe most blues bands are missing the point. The blues, Drozdowski sings, aren’t “dipped in amber.” They’re not locked into old formulas—the band is out to fill their own “Big Shoes.” For this special release, the duo even kicks in a souvenir metal Scissormen bottle cap. Fortunately for us all, the Scissormen can deliver the goods.

Throughout the 12 number CD, recorded in February 2010 at the Key Palace Theater in Red Key, Indiana, Drozdowski demonstrates serviceable vocals, above average compositional ability, and a soaring, accomplished slide guitar style that merges Southern blues with ‘60s psychedelia. One can be forgiven, from time to time, for thinking we’re hearing a lost “live at the Fillmore” jam. For example, “Tupelo” is where Pink Floyd meets John Lee Hooker. Perhaps there’s a touch of Ten Years After in “Whiskey and Maryjane.” In a number of solos, there’s an overt nod to Mississippi Fred McDowell and perhaps some borrowing from speed-master Rory Gallagher. Most importantly, Drozdowski makes it repeatedly clear he feels he’s in the shadow of the late R.L. Burnside. The pair sing songs by Burnside, perform tributes to him, and urge their audience to check out his catalogue.

But despite using so many pieces from the entire blues/rock puzzle, the Scissormen are true originals. One surprise is just how well the tasteful Hulsman fills the holes as the only supporting player. The listener doesn’t miss the presence of a bassist, which gives the pair a distinctive sound. (Hulsman has since been replaced by Matt Snow.) As Drozdowski explains on the DVD, it wasn’t unusual for old blues bands to be only guitars and drums. That’s why open tunings were used to allow for fuller bass sounds.

More of such insights are on Mugge’s 90-minute feature which includes concert footage, observations from the two band members about life on the road, and some interesting perspectives not especially typical of such “blues-umentaries,” to coin a term. A former music writer, Drozdowski is extremely articulate talking about the roots of the blues in conversations with Charles Noble, owner of the Red Key venue and a blues enthusiast in his own right. In fact, Noble built shack/rooms inspired by those in Clarksdale, Mississippi to house traveling musicians when they came to Redkey, perhaps the most unlikely blues mecca. The same is true for Indianapolis, where Drozdowski travels to conduct a clinic in open guitar tuning. He also goes to other Midwest cities where the guitarist is both a teacher and student in the roots of blues and jazz. We not only hear about classic bluesmen who came north to get away from harsh Southern existence, but learn and see how places other than Chicago nurtured and supported important American performers no matter their color.

Together the two discs of Big Shoes: Walking and Talking the Blues showcase just how vital the blues can be even in the 21st Century and how rich and far-flung a well contemporary performers can draw from. No blues fans should miss this one. Few rock fans, especially lovers of guitar gods, should bypass it either. This package is something different, something special, and more than listenable—it’s revelatory as well.

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About Wesley Britton

  • http://robertmugge.com/ Robert Mugge

    Many thanks for this generous and perceptive review.

  • Wesley Britton

    Thanks for the thanks! Generous, perhaps, perceptive–well, thanks again–

  • http://robertmugge.com/ Robert Mugge

    Ha! I prefer to think that all the positive comments above were due more to your perceptiveness than to your generosity. But Ted and I will take what we can get!

    I just noticed that your review has now been picked up by the Seattle Post Intelligencer and then bounced other places from there. Cool the way that works.

    Thanks for the thanks for the thanks!

  • Wesley Britton

    I’m tempted to say thanks for the thanks for . . . but I’ll just say I hope you folks have enough bottle caps for everyone. And the bottles to go with them–