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One Track Mind: James Cotton and Billy Branch, "Rocket 88" (2011)


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Like an aging boxer making an heroic late-round stand, James “Superharp" Cotton brilliantly tangles on a timeless favorite from his 1960s tenure with Vanguard, giving fellow harp master Billy Branch all he can handle.

Even now, Cotton's playing style closely resembles his bandleading heyday—a memorably robust player, you imagine smoke and spit blasting out of the other side of his harmonica as he blows—but the 74-year-old has found both a suitable inheritor, and a worthy opponent, in Branch. Perhaps that's to be expected from Branch, some 16 years younger. Yet Cotton, an acolyte of Sonny Boy Williamson II before he took over for Little Walter in Muddy Waters' band, remains well suited for these kind of cutting sessions, even if his voice has disappeared after years of serious throat problems.

“Rocket 88," memorably introduced in 1951 by Ike Turner and his Rhythm Kings before Cotton made it his own, is featured as part of the new 2-CD Chicago Blues: A Living History; The (R)evolution Continues, an old-blues-meets-new-blues amalgam issued this week by Megaforce/RED. The followup to a similar Grammy-nominated homage from 2009, the 22-track compilation elsewhere includes guest appearances by the likes of Buddy Guy, John Primer, Magic Slim and Ronnie Baker Brooks, among others. They're fronting a talented group called the Living History Band, featuring former Miles Davis bassist Felton Crews, not to mention a couple of rising second-generation stars in drummer Kenny “Beedy Eyes" Smith (son of Muddy Waters sideman Willie “Big Eyes" Smith) and guitarist Lurrie Bell (son of Carey Bell, who played harp with Earl Hooker, Willie Dixon and others).

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: We previewed a track from this project back in April, Buddy Guy's suitably scorching take on “First Time I Met The Blues."]

Cotton opens “Rocket 88" by simply burning through 12 bars. After Branch gamely assumes vocals on the first verse, Cotton takes another turn—and this one is better still. Cotton's a whirring motor, then a squealing girl, then an aircraft shaking loose of the earth's pull. That's all before Branch has taken his own muscular turn. As the song begins to wind down, Branch once more pulls the harmonica to his lips and the two legends engage in a stunning back and forth—this interplay that is as amazing as it is entertaining: They land body blow after body blow, laughing the whole time.

Elsewhere, Chicago Blues: A Living History; The (R)evolution Continues continues to bridge the generations—featuring Arnold's tribute to Sonny Boy Williamson II on the 1941 boogie-woogie track “She Don't Love Me That Way," and former Willie Dixon sideman John Primer's smart reworking of Chuck Berry's 1958 gem “Reelin and a Rockin,'" among others. Produced by Raisin' Music's Larry Skoller, the album includes a 32-page booklet featuring a blues timeline from Rice Miller's birth through Otis Rush's first Grammy, liner notes and photography by Paul Natkin and Brad Meese.

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