Release date: October 28, 2022
Random Chance Records
By Curt Brown
In August of this year, I had the honor of reviewing for the Chicago Blues Guide what, in a perfect world, would be my candidate for the best blues release of the year to-date, the superb The Dig 3 by The Dig 3. Now, along comes Mr. Blues, Mr. Blues by Martin Lang and Rusty Zinn, and the resulting impact of this astonishing blues collection is that I now have two candidates for the best blues release of 2022. In a crowded blues arena with so many middle-of-the road quality collections, Lang’s and Zinn’s Mr. Blues, Mr. Blues abundantly astounds with astutely crafted originals and well-cultivated covers. It is a rare occurrence when the entirety of a blues assemblage is downloaded into my iTunes library, but Mr. Blues, Mr. Blues is the exception, with the only downside being that I wish there were more than the generous 14 cuts in which to revel!
Lang made his prodigious mark upon the blues world primarily in support of other blues artists, decisively establishing him as the first-call blues harmonica player among an undeniable prominent roster of blues royalty needing his plentiful services. While many blues harmonica practitioners count their accolades as carefully as they do their abundant notes, Lang harkens back to that period when volume, shading, spacing, and inter-band dynamics set the bar necessarily high, in contrast to those whose loud frantic harmonica excursions are their de rigueur styles. In short, Lang’s methodology is one of reverence, tact, and class.
Lang has had three prior high-quality Random Chance Records releases under his name, and was included on a fourth blues harmonica compilation along with Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, Little Arthur Duncan, and Alex “Easy Baby” Randall entitled “Harmonica Blues Orgy.”
Zinn, the West Coast-born blues and reggae guitarist and vocalist, perfected his six-string proficiencies during terms within the bands of blues harmonica bests Mark Hummel and Kim Wilson, among additional support opportunities with the likes of James Cotton, Snooky Pryor, and Jimmy Rogers.
Zinn has prolifically recorded, including two Blacktop Records blues releases, one Alligator Records blues release, two Big Daddy Records collections (one reggae and one blues), one 9 Above Records reggae outing, two Bluebeat Music blues releases, and one Rockbeat Records reggae effort.
Lang and Zinn did appear together on Lang’s Random Chance Records Ain’t No Notion release.
Before getting into the meat of Lang’s and Zinn’s new blues jaunt, it is important to remember, as is said, “One is the company they keep.” On Mr. Blues, Mr. Blues, the two headliners have drawn together members of the elite ranks of specific blues instrumentalists, and as a result, the unity found in the blues visions of Lang and Zinn are solidified and highly-achieved because of their guests’ respective and collective involvement. While Lang and Zinn appear on harmonica and guitar, respectively, on all tracks, additional indispensable and tasteful guitar efforts arise from Billy Flynn and Little Frank Krakowski, while stylistic and bedrock bass assignments are exported by Illinois Slim and Rodrigo Mantovani. On keyboards, Gerry Hundt submits incisive organ declarations, while Dave Waldman and Johnny Iguana ply their respective piano collaborations idyllically. Kelly Littleton is a rock-solid presence on drums, holding the proceedings in firm check, while Dean Haas gets a turn on maracas and tambourine.
Over the course of this CD, there is a racket occurring, of the kind that wholly appeals. Across the landscape of this set, sterling ensemble playing of the rank realized here chugs, lurches, romps, respects, and ultimately constructs blues tales supremely skillfully. Cooperative blues exhibitions of the category proffered on this CD cannot in any way be imitated. The lessons learned by the individual participants during their musical careers to attain the remarkable collective level adeptness enjoyed result in great benefits paid to the project.
There is no other blues harmonica sound like Lang’s currently out there; none. It’s forceful, driving, cutting, ringing, and searing, but above all, to the discerning blues ear, a uniquely present-day interpretive approach to the untold resonances capable through the diminutive pocket-sized instrument. Lang squalls, swoops, and wails with a blues license of the nature not heard since the 1950s heyday of Chicago blues harmonica. He owns it.
Lang’s vocals are assertive, cool, and tethered to emotional impact. There lives an assured scaffolding backing his vocal excursions. Nothing is phoned-in, as each sung blues tale is altogether convincing. Bravo.
Zinn’s guitar designs are not predictable; that is an extraordinarily good factor. At no time while studying his guitar playing, especially during his solos, could his next phrase be anticipated, as is the case with so many other blues guitarists. No, Zinn heartily surprises with each stanza, and his ability to infuse his guitar junkets with such distinctiveness is refreshing, and to be applauded. The listener is advised to listen closely; unexpected notes and runs are the norm.
Zinn’s voice is clean and confident, full-throated, and the blues scenarios he paints via his vocals are 100% believable; his style allows the listener to suppose he has lived them. Again, bravo.
Regarding specific blues tunes of particular favor to this reviewer, “W-A-S-T-E-D” is a romping sonnet upon the subject of strong affection that is decorated by one of Lang’s roaring harmonica solos, with Zinn’s guitar surging break buoying the positive views expressed. Opening with a strong Lang harmonica stanza, “Mr. Blues, Mr. Blues” (a Lang original), Zinn intones the benefits of the demise of the blues, and how all would be better for it. Throughout, Lang appreciably heightens banishing the blues to the graveyard as the ultimate outcome, as professed by his howling harmonica solo meanderings. Zinn’s convincing voice on this cut cannot be overstated, nor can Lang’s braying harmonica expeditions.
The instrumental “Mickey” is about as much fun one can have in three minutes. The exuberance on display will bring a genuine smile to even the most seasoned of blues enthusiasts. Its gusto is that infectious. It is a raucous, churning, and completely nourishing good time. Another Lang original entitled “Say It One More Time” is an ode to love sliding away, with the vibrato-laden guitar effect and Lang’s echo-laden vocals adding an air of an ominous outcome to the relationship in question.
Finally, Lang’s “Rose & Kelly’s Boogie” is an epic instrumental dedicated to the Chicago South Side blues haunt of the same name, a place that obviously firmly continues to have a grip on Lang’s soul. It stomps with delight, and is celebratory in character. Dare it be said that Lang, while completely his own highly-worthy blues man here, spins harmonica hues of Little Walter all the while; they lurk here. For many blues harmonica artists, Rose & Kelly’s was an important venue to see, hear, and be heard, and for Lang, it is unmistakable how big an impact the lessons learned there assisted in shaping his professional being.
Without the heft provided by Dick Shurman’s producing aptitudes, this astonishing collection could not have transpired. His years of blues involvement, keen ears, and insightful direction obviously added immeasurably to the elevated achievement witnessed by one listen to this terrific CD.
A phenomenal outing such as Mr. Blues, Mr. Blues is utterly possible when two highly-venerated blues professionals surround themselves with a blue-ribbon ensemble (this cannot be overstated), mix intriguing originals with delectable covers, and ensure the proceedings will be produced by a tenured, proven authority. Mr. Blues, Mr. Blues, is highly-recommended without any stipulation whatsoever. As is often said, “They don’t make ‘em like this anymore.” This CD needs to be in any serious blues collection. Period.
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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.