Cash Box Kings - Holding Court

By Matt MacDonald
September 2015

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If you were watching a movie set in Chicago in the late 1950s and the Cash Box Kings turned up as ambient music – say “I Ain’t Gonna Be No Monkey Man” was coming out over a kitchen radio – you wouldn’t think twice about it.

That’s how well they recreate that particular blues sound from that particular time.

Oscar Wilson’s singing, Joe Nosek’s harmonica playing, and the overall sound quality of everything is spot on, even when the songs are about decidedly modern things. If you could magically go back to that same Chicago kitchen and transmit “Download Blues” through that radio and watch – as a fly on the wall – as the people living there wash the dishes, mix a drink, or make a sandwich, you might find that the lyrics might not even register to them until the second or third listening. And even then, after possibly muttering, “What the hell’s a download?”, it may just be accepted without further investigation (Bruce Springsteen’s “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” comes to mind… great song, but even the Boss doesn’t know what the title means) simply because what they’re hearing sounds good. “Download” might even become cool slang with an entirely different yet prescient meaning fifty years ahead of its time: “Don’t download me, man.” = “Don’t rip me off.” Hell, it could very well work as slang today.

That being said, I sometimes wonder why there’s such a serious pursuit (it’s not at all easy to do what the Cash Box Kings are doing) to so closely recreate this sound when we already have permanent records of Little Walter’s harmonica playing and Jimmy Roger’s singing. The spirit of those musicians, as well as the spirit of John Lee Hooker, Willie Love, and others sampled on Holding Court is, it can be argued, in their unique personal expression. They were mold breakers. To shape a style to fit those molds seems to somehow go against their essence. And then I think back to a hot summer night in Kyoto when I stumbled across Little Walter’s “My Babe” piping through a small speaker at the foot of a staircase in a narrow, lanterned shop lane. I stopped to listen to this unexpected treat and then slowly realized that it wasn’t a recording. I went up the stairs into a tiny, empty bar, where a slight, white haired, Japanese guy with a long ponytail was playing the harmonica as two big bald Japanese guys played guitars behind him. I bought a glass of bourbon and sat fascinated as they went through a chunk of their Little Walter repertoire, note for note. They loved what they were doing and were good at it. I couldn’t help but like it.

So, in short, who am I to judge how musicians use their gifts? The important thing here is that the Cash Box Kings are very talented at what they do and provide enjoyment for their listeners – myself included – and themselves. Sounds good to me.

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