Release date: March 17, 2023
By Curt Brown
Joe Nosek & Oscar Wilson/ Photo: by Janet Mami Takayama
Just when the protracted grey dreariness of the upper Midwest couldn’t get any less tolerable, the clouds mercifully parted, the sun shone joyously bright, and trodden spirits were lifted when the latest release from The Cash Box Kings, Oscar’s Motel, arrived in this reviewer’s hands! Alligator Records couldn’t have delivered a more ideal cure for the winter blues!
The Cash Box Kings, the tried-and-true blues aggregation comprised of charismatic front man and vocalist Oscar Wilson, brilliant harmonica ace Joe Nosek, first-call guitar authority Billy Flynn, percussionist-without-peer Kenny “Beedy Eyes” Smith, low-end bass marvel John Lauler, and keyboard sensation Lee Kanehira steer lifetimes of abounding musical proficiencies into this magnificent outing, one comprised of nine originals and two tasty covers, their third for famed Alligator Records.
In tow on this blue odyssey are a congregation of immensely skilled musical co-conspirators, who by the very natures of their contributions, appear as invested in this superb project as The Cash Box Kings themselves. Contributing their musical articulations are celebrated vocalists Deitra Farr and Cameron Webb, bandleader, harmonicist, and singer John Nemeth, guitarists Jon McDonald, Shoji Naito, Andrew Diehl, and Xavier Lynn, drummers Derek Hendrickson and Alex Hall, and The C-Note Horns consisting of saxophonist Al Falaschi and trumpeter Jim Doherty. With all the musical proficiencies from these esteemed guests accompanying The Cash Box Kings down their blues road, a satisfyingly rich outcome was virtually foretold!
“Oscar’s Motel” is Howlin’ Wolf-ish in its tone, with Wilson’s wailing and cries, and Nosek’s beckoning harmonica rendering the sound to be as “Delta” as possible. It is an ode to the attributes and advantages of the mythical Oscar’s Motel, including Wilson’s promises of love, all hurled forward by Nosek’s propelling harmonica, and Smith’s crashing and dynamic drumming.
“Down On The South Side” is a memory lane jaunt for Wilson as he takes the listener on joyful reminisces of characters and scenarios he committed to remembrance through his upbringing there. Falaschi and Doherty create sheens of harmonic punches throughout, Hall’s percussion is oh-so spot-on with its rhythmic crusade, and Flynn’s guitar solo is funky and ideal.
“Please Have Mercy” is a heady interpretation of a Muddy Waters work that transports a classic post-war era Chicago blues sound forward via Wilson’s suitably intense conveyance of a downtrodden man regretting his mistreatment of his woman. Nosek’s harmonica is horn-like in its squalling intensity, while Naito offers subtle but idyllic backbone via his kick drum efforts. The guitar looming in the background flawlessly frames the heartache that resides at the center of this moving cut.
If there has ever been a blues that is as tongue-in-cheek as “I Can’t Stand You” it remains unknown to this reviewer. Singers Deitra Farr and Oscar Wilson trade punches like two heavyweights trying to last the full 15 rounds in the boxing ring, playfully sparring with one another over their perceived shortcomings. Both the song lyrics and spoken asides are scampish, with Nosek eventually playing the role of peacemaker who brings the two combatants together. This tune carries an up-tempo bounce leading to a delicious Nosek harmonica solo, all the while Kanehira’s piano subtly provides enticing curlicues in the background. This vocal jousting ultimately leads to Wilson and Farr admitting to their deep-down affection for one another; a perfect ending.
“Hot Little Mess” finds Nosek’s vocals weaving a tale of a drunken, difficult-to-corral lady whose flaws he acknowledges, though he covets her, and yearns for her conversion. He truly wants this woman to be of the model he could bring home to his mother. Nosek is a man bound nonetheless to her attractive qualities, of which only he can define. Nosek’s booming harmonica song introduction seems to portend his troubles-in-mind, and the saxophone riffing along with him only heightens the conscious conflict at-hand.
“Nobody Called It The Blues” is a powerful song (penned by Chicago tunesmiths Terry Abrahamson and Derrick Procell in collaboration with Nosek and Wilson); singers
Wilson and Webb provide deep reflection on the blues and its origins via the Black experience in the South. It opens with a churchy a capella stanza from Wilson and Webb, and segues into a potent vehicle for what is great pride at how the blues kept, and keeps, spirits high, and as a still-ongoing means of survival. All involved on this song frame the tension of the narrative with supreme textures.
“Pontiac Blues” is a rousing interpretation of the Sonny Boy Williamson II classic that finds Nosek affording a remarkable Sonny Boy II spirit, his squawking harmonica buoyantly flying atop Wilson’s energetic vocals. Lauler’s walking bass line is rollicking framing, and Smith’s drumming churns and dances. As delivered, this is a party tune in the best sense of the meaning. It is great to see a modern blues group fete Sonny Boy II.
“Trying So Hard” opens with a slide guitar passage a la Robert Nighthawk, and sets the tone for Wilson’s singing of love’s and life’s travails, lyrics that portray him as a man with no way out of his resignation. Nosek’s harmonica cadences offer occasional blasts of emotion, and in the background Kanehira funds the mood with roiling piano excursions. Flynn’s guitar solo is chocked-full of pain and longing. The whole of all participants paints a vivid picture of a man deep within himself.
“She Dropped The Axe On Me” finds Nosek ringing that familiar bell the blues often broaches; regretful emotional involvement. The cut is framed early by Nosek’s ominous and muscular harmonica warning siren to love undone, and his sung words are further bolstered by his solo that gets more intense by the second as he seems to be purging himself of the pain attempting to leach through his very skin. This is powerful stuff, and his remorse just flows.
Nemeth’s vocals swing and roll on the good time workout “I Want What Chaz Has” in a romp that conveys lofty admiration for the cumulative macho powers held by the loathed Chaz. Apparently, the breadth of “finery” adorning the protagonist’s lifestyle leaves Nemeth in emotional tatters. The background swaying vocal chorus indicates that the entirety of the band also sees Chaz as a lucky man, and want in on his magic, as well. Group jealousy, indeed!
Finally, “Ride Santa Ride” is a Chuck Berry-esque holiday story song detailing Santa’s need for assistance in his timely delivery of toys for the little ones, with the only hope being Wilson offering his Cadillac to carry the gifts to their intended destinations. This is a genuine “get out of your seat and dance” tune that prompts smiles and happiness; this is no knock-off cut at the end of a CD. Flynn’s burning guitar is his take on Berry’s finest refrains, and Kanehira’s piano socks like Berry’s partner, the famed Johnnie Johnson. What a way to end a set!
As is always the case with any Alligator Records collection, production levels are high with each voice and instrument supremely presented.
The Cash Box Kings skillfully transition between all shades of the blues, continually bestowing their exceptional dedication to moving the blues forward while at all times holding its past in high reverence. Front-to-back, from core band member competencies, to guest artist attributes, to song selection, and in conclusion to what appears to be an embedded goal to make each recorded collection the very finest it can be, The Cash Box Kings wildly succeed.
Thank you, Alligator Records, for believing in The Cash Box Kings and their distinctive blues visions.
About the Author: Curt Brown is the author of the weekly “Curt’s Blues” blog (Curt's Blues - Blues. Only. Spoken. Here. (curtsblues.com). He was the long-time late-night blues radio host on WSND FM 88.9 Notre Dame/South Bend. His Master’s Degree thesis from Indiana University dealt with the notion of travel in blues lyrics. He previously published a weekly blues article for the student newspaper of Indiana University South Bend, and has been interviewed by newspapers and magazines regarding the blues.
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