Luther “Guitar” Johnson, James Cotton, and Carey B

Luther “Guitar” Johnson, James Cotton, and Carey B
3 Live Reviews

By Karen Nugent
February 2006

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Luther Johnson

The great Luther “Guitar Jr.” Johnson packed Johnny D’s in Somerville on Jan. 6.

The ever-dapper Mr. Johnson, looking chipper since recovering from some serious medical problems - including a kidney transplant - was his usual great self.

Dressed in a light yellow suit, Panama hat, and yellow snakeskin boots, Johnson always gives his audiences a personable touch with real eye contact (he seems to be looking right at YOU!). He’ll nod at you, too, if you respond with a head-bop, high-five, whoop, or just a smile. Much of the crowd was doing all of that, and Luther was smiling throughout his songs.

The dance floor was jammed for both sets. Once a sideman for Muddy Waters, Johnson was backed by his long-time band, The Magic Rockers, with a diminutive sax player named Cookie, and a trumpet player whose name I didn’t catch. As with most of his shows, there was funk and jazz thrown in, but he did a fine version of Pinetop Perkins’ “For You My Love,” along with Muddy’s “Nine Below Zero, and “Mannish Boy.”

And guess what? Luther likes to change that line in “Mannish Boy” about, “I can make love to a woman in five minutes time” to: “I can make love to a woman 29 times (or some very large number; it was a lot, trust me on this.) Hmm…I don’t doubt it.

Johnson also did “Sloppy Drunk” and a terrific, long, version of “Fever” along with two of his standards, “Stand by Me” and “Bring it on Home to Me.”

He’s coming to Chan’s in Woonsocket next month, so catch his act if you can.

James Coton

James Cotton

Two weeks later, we caught the great James Cotton at swanky Sculler’s Jazz Club in Allston. That was a really, really outstanding show by one of the greatest harp players ever. Cotton is also one of Muddy’s alumni, and one of his favorite harp players- for years. He plays on perhaps Muddy’s greatest album, “Hard Again,” produced by, and featuring, Johnny Winter.

Orphaned before the age of 10, Cotton had to take care of himself from then on. As a teen-ager, he met Sonny Boy Williamson (Rice Miller), and got a gig opening for him – outside clubs because he was too young to go inside. Later, he played with Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy. He left Muddy in the 60s to form his own band, after it became quite obvious that he was a star in his own right.

Cotton has battled throat cancer, and his voice is pretty much shot. But without doubt, his harp playing is as great as always, and the showmanship is still there. Wearing a red satin shirt and black beret, he waves a white handkerchief at the guitarists to cool them off during hot riffs, jumps out of his chair and boogies at the end of each set, and pumps a hand in the air in salute of his drummer.

Cotton has a very tight band that has been touring with him for several years.

Most of the vocals are handled nicely by “Slam” Allen, from New York City, who is one of Cotton’s two superb guitarists. Also on guitar is slide-specialist Tom Holland. They are joined by Charles Mack on a six-string bass and Mark Mack on drums.

The band, which Cotton seems to love, was unbelievably good for both sets.  Bassist Mack did a fine version of  “Mustang Sally” before Cotton took to the stage to a thunderously cheering crowd.

Besides several Muddy songs (including “Got My Mojo Working,”  “Blow, Wind, Blow,” ”Nine Below Zero,” and “Going Down to Main Street”), Cotton did searing Little Walter instrumentals, and the slow blues, “Who’s Loving You Tonight,” along with “Sweet Home Chicago,” and “Bright Lights, Big City.”

A highlight in both sets was “Rocket 88,” but my favorite tune of the night was “Don’t Start Me Talkin’,” the classic Sonny Boy hit.

Cotton doesn’t seem to change harps much, and he kept a stream of chat going with the bass and drummer during some songs, laughing a lot. He also acknowledged a few people in the audience, including a former band member; and Boston’s own “super-harp”- Annie Raines; and super-guitarist, Ronnie Earl.

Cotton is playing more dates around New England in February and March, several with James Montgomery. This is a blues legend you don’t want to miss.

James Coton

Carey Bell

On Feb. 1, it was back to Johnny D’s to catch another harmonica great, Carey Bell. Another of Muddy Water’s sideman, Bell played in the band from 1970-71, (that’s Bell on Muddy’s London Sessions and Unk in Funk.) He also was in Willie Dixon’s All-Star Band, the Muddy Waters Tribute Band, and recorded on Bob Margolin’s All-Star Jam a few years ago.

Bell, 71, learned from two of the greatest: Little Walter Jacobs and Big Walter Horton, whom he gives the most credit to.

There was a sparse crowd at Johnny D’s that night, and Bell, in a purple suit, looked frail, but still has the face of a little boy. It took several people to get him up onto the stage, and you could hear a pin drop while this was going on. Nobody danced the whole night, and Bell does little, if any, talking between songs.

His son, guitarist Lurrie Bell – a star in his own right  - was supposed to appear with him, but cancelled after the unexpected death of his girlfriend. That appeared to have resulted in some last minute band changes.

For all of that, it was a good show. Bell, who has a nice and gritty singing voice, did lots of Little Walter (“Tell Me, Mama,”  “You Know it ain’t Right,” and more), some Big Walter, and Muddy’s “Walkin’ Through the Park” “She’s Nineteen Years Old” and “Mojo.” (In fact, all three bluesmen did Mojo.  I don’t’ think you can go to a show anymore without hearing it!)

Bell got an appreciative round of applause for a particularly emotional Little Walter tune. For the second set, he was joined by a keyboardist and saxophone player from the audience, who livened things up with a Fats Domino tune, and some jamming.

Bell, who lives in Charlotte, N.C., is known for his double-reed harmonica and, of course, the big chromatic. It turns out that as a child, he wanted to play saxophone, but his family could only afford a harp for him. He also learned bass at one point, and got gigs in the 60s as a bassist with Big Walter, Honeyboy Edwards, Eddie Taylor, and others. He went back to harp in 1968, and has been recording and gigging since.

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