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Music Review: Scissormen – Big Shoes: Walking & Talking the Blues (CD + DVD)

The DVD and CD set Big Shoes: Walking &Talking the Blues sounds so promising, but frankly, I felt they fell very short of that promise.

The DVD is a documentary by Robert Mugge that follows blues duo the Scissormen on a trip to three blues clubs in Indiana, plus a visit to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and a historic Indiana record company. The CD is the audio of a Scissormen performance at the Key Palace Theater in Redkey, Indiana.

Lead singer, songwriter and guitarist Ted Drozdowski is a very good slide guitarist, but at least in the documentary and the live recording, not very strong as a vocalist. The drummer at the time, R.L Hulsman, is competent, but between the two of them they really don’t deliver a great deal of passion or power on the CD.

As for the DVD, it is fun to see Drozdowski play on the top of the bar in one club, while lying on a row of empty seats in another and otherwise interacting with the audience. But for the most part, the rather sparse audiences were not enthusiastic enough and the band was not strong enough to make a powerful documentary experience.

Here in Atlanta I see better groups play for more enthusiastic audiences nearly every week. I think that many of them could have made a much more interesting documentary about a blues group on tour than the Scissormen did. The only moments of real interest involved Drozdowski’s slide guitar playing, which is much stronger than any other part of the performances.

As for the music, I like the song “Big Shoes,” about finding and staking out a claim to your own place in the blues. I also like “Whiskey and MaryJane,” but the rest of the songs are just okay. For me, songs are strongest when they reflect something about the singer’s own experience, or at least something that the singer can convince you he connects with.

With most of these songs, I think that Drozdowski seems to be trying too hard to write in certain blues styles. He does not show any real passion or emotion in his singing despite some good guitar playing. “Big Shoes” and “Whiskey and MaryJane” work because in the first one, Drozdowski has something he wants to say and he clearly means it. Whether “Whiskey and MaryJane” really reflects his lifestyle, it certainly sounds as though it could.

An example of the other extreme is “Mattie Sweet Mattie.” Drozdowski explains on the CD that he was trying to write a song in the style of Mississippi John Hurt. But it just doesn’t work. I do not believe that this modern blues singer has ever experienced having a woman in jail for cutting another woman, worrying about not being able to bail her out. That could have happened to an old-time bluesman, and if it had, you would have heard it in his voice. Even if he wrote a humorous song about the incident, you would hear the pain underneath. In “Mattie Sweet Mattie,” I don’t hear anything. It’s just some unbelievable words. A skillful singer could make you buy it, but I don’t buy this.

So again, my main problem with the songs is that I don’t feel any real passion or emotion in them. Even the tributes like “Jessie Mae” and “R.L. Burnside,” sound more like intellectual exercises to my ear than real, sincere blues songs.

Overall, I found both the documentary and the CD disappointing. Perhaps your experience will be different, but I was not inspired by this one. I did not feel that the Scissormen were, in fact, “walking and talking the blues.”

About Rhetta Akamatsu

I am an author of non-fiction books and an online journalist. My books include Haunted Marietta, The Irish Slaves, T'ain't Nobody's Business If I Do: Blues Women Past and Present, and Sex Sells: Women in Photography and Film.
  • Bill McKay

    For a dissenting opinion, read this earlier review on blogcritics.

    Also Mattie Sweet Mattie, as clearly stated on the CD, is inspired by Fred McDowell and has nothing to do with John Hurt, as the author above writes having not paid much attention.