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Billy Boy Arnold: Catfish

Derek Taylor By

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Bluesman Billy Boy Arnold’s first big break came when he teamed with his friend Ellas McDaniel (better known as Bo Diddley) cut a demo tape for Chess Records in 1955. Thanks to the fickle preferences of Leonard Chess Diddley ended up with a record contract and Arnold was left holding the bag. It was a precedent that would shadow Arnold for much of his career, keeping him out of the spotlight and making the documentation of his work sporadic. Fortunately he kept at it and things finally paid off decades later when he teamed up with the Alligator label. Along the way he waxed various sessions that map a continuum from his beginnings as a protégé of Sonny Boy Williamson to his current place as a veteran bluesman with a loyal following and distinct style.

Plucked from the middle phase of Arnold’s career this disc finds him collaborating with the British blues-rock band The Groundhogs on a collection of taproom classics. While Arnold’s harp usually takes a back seat to his vocals, there are still plenty of moments where his scorching amplified lines tear things up. The title track is a full-tilt rocker with twin guitars blasting forth over a shuffling drum backbeat and chest-rattling bass. Arnold growls out lines against counterpoint from the lead guitar before hoisting his harp to his lips and blowing a few stinging choruses. This is neck snapping, hip-popping music that will set even the most lethargic foot to stomping. Later tracks mix mellow laidback sentiments like those expressed on “Tomorrow Night” with the more corrosive fare. “Dirty Mother Fuyer,” a barely concealed expletive in and of itself, is definitely sheared from the latter ragged cloth and Arnold tosses out thinly veiled raunch atop a fuzzed out mattress of guitars and rhythm. Likewise the cryptic “1-2-99” bubbles over with a sticky mix of studio echoplex and fat bottom bass. The band’s rocking trajectory hits a boiling point in terms of down and dirty delivery on “Riding the El” where choppy riffs and wailing harp simulate a harrowing trip on the Chicago’s elevated rails.

Interspersed between the music are occasional asides from Arnold that give a behind the scenes taste of the studio atmosphere when the tunes were committed to tape. Overall this disc is one of ups and downs, but the peaks are fortunately far more plentiful than the valleys. Even more importantly Arnold fits right in with the rock-enamored dispositions of his sidemen. In the process he cooks up a generously packed creation that stays true to his roots while at the same time incorporating new sounds and directions.

Catfish on the web:

Track Listing: Catfish/ Tomorrow Night/ Dirty Mother Fuyer/ Annie Lee/ 1-22-99/ Just Got To Know/ She Fooled Me/ Don

Personnel: Billy Boy Arnold & the Groundhogs

Title: Catfish | Year Released: 2000 | Record Label: Catfish Records (UK)


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