In the notes that arrived with Paul Cowley’s third solo CD [Just What I Know], he explains the album’s title by quoting the Reverend Gary Davis as say “…play just what you know…”
It turns out that what Paul Cowley knows is country blues, and he really does know his subject, with influences including Robert Johnson, Mississippi John Hurt et al. This CD features eleven songs: five of them are his own, and the rest are from classic blues artists like Memphis Minnie and Furry Lewis. The CD mostly features Paul’s own guitar and slide guitar, percussion and vocals, but Pascal Ferrari contributes bass and percussion, and also mixed and mastered Paul’s original recordings.
There is a hint of a regional theme to this CD in that several of the artists whose songs are represented here were active around Memphis and/or North Mississippi in the early-ish 20th century. The main exceptions being Blind Willie McTell (who was largely active around Atlanta, Georgia) and Paul himself, who is originally from Birmingham in the UK and now lives in Brittany. While his own songs here don’t conform to a strict 8/12/16-bar or I-IV-V format, they combine blues-soaked guitar and vocal work with a sophisticated urban lyricism, informed by country blues but not dictated by a need to imitate it.
- ‘New Bumble Bee no2’ was one of Memphis Minnie’s most popular songs – indeed, she recorded several versions of it. Paul makes it own with some tasteful slide and a vocal that reminds me a little of Peter Green in acoustic mode.
- ‘I’ll Go With Her’, recorded in 1930 by Robert Wilkins, forgoes the discreet sassiness of the first track for a more funereal theme: “I’ll go with her, I’ll follow her, I will, to her buryin’ place“, though this is a bluesier song than the gospel blues of the Reverend Wilkins’ later years. In tempo and vocal delivery, this version is fairly close to the original, though with more light and shade in the guitar work.
- ‘Penny For Mine Penny For Yours’ is the first of Paul Cowley’s own songs, beginning with slightly jazzy guitar and moving into a smoky vocal supported by an understated but effective accompaniment including Pascal Ferrari’s sympathetic bass work. (It turns out that the sleeve notes are slightly adrift on this point: Pascal plays bass on tracks 3 and 8, not on 5 and 10.)
- ‘Red Fence’ is another of Paul’s own songs: a pleasantly summery sound.
- ‘Memphis Jug Blues’ was written by Will Shade for the Memphis Jug Band. Rather than try for a jug band feel, this version has sprightly acoustic guitar that reminds me a little of the Reverend Gary Davis, and it works very well.
- On Blind Willy McTell’s ‘I Got To Cross That River Of Jordan’ has a similar feel to McTell’s 12-string slide, but the slower pace, different tuning, and elaborate vocal lines, also reminded me of Blind Willie Johnson. And that’s not a bad thing either.
- ‘Summer Breeze’ is another Cowley song: if the title reminds you of Seal and Crofts, don’t let it trick you into expecting a similarly smooth delivery. This is far gutsier.
- Paul’s ‘Dollar & A Lie’ has more upfront slide: while the structure is about as simple as it gets, the combination of boogie feel and cynical lyric is attractive.
- ‘Hiver Dur’, the last Cowley song on the CD, paints (as you might expect from the title) a dramatic picture of a hard winter. At the moment this is my favourite track.
- ‘Judge Harsh Blues’ is a song by Furry Lewis, structurally not unlike Robert Wilkins’ ‘Prodigal Son’, but tells quite a different story. Paul takes it more slowly than either of the Furry Lewis versions I’ve heard, but it works very nicely.
- ‘Roll & Tumble’ is a version of ‘Roll And Tumble Blues’, probably first recorded by Hambone Willie Newbern in 1928. Not much is known about Newbern, but the song has been recorded and reworked many times over the years, not only by other blues artists but by rock acts including Cream, Captain Beefheart, and the Grateful Dead. This stripped-down version is closer to its roots, though, enlivened by the addition of a one string diddley bow.
This is an excellent CD: good songs combining authentic blues and gritty contemporary songs with a strong blues flavour, played and sung well. I look forward to hearing what else Paul Cowley knows.
Artist’s website: www.paulcowleymusic.com/
‘Bumble Bee’ – home video: