Album: Mississippi Fred McDowell Vol. 2
Artist: Fred McDowell
Year: 1966 (2016 re-issue)
Tested On: Grado Black – Realistic LAB 400 – Luxman R-1050 – Dynaco A-25
In the late 1950’s and 1960’s came a renewal of interest in American roots music, and in particular, the blues. Philanthropic folklorists like Alan Lomax made their way around the country diligently locating and recording obscure talent for posterity, and it is not surprising that they managed to discover some really special musicians along the way.
One of them is Mississippi Fred McDowell. McDowell first recorded his singular Mississippi blues with Alan Lomax, and the records that emerged from this encounter scored a lot of notoriety for the artist, who was previously known only to neighbours and friends. Arhoolie Records’ Fred McDowell Vol. 2 offers an intriguing cross-section of McDowell’s work, but is not without its superfluities.
To be sure, this album is mostly great material. The guitar is propulsive, punctual, and unrelenting as a machine. McDowell’s open tuned slide technique is truly exceptional and would risk outshining his drama and wit if these too weren’t so well-honed on the record: the layering of lyrical subtext in “Frisco Line” runs deep, and I get the shakes just thinking about “Red Cross Store Blues.”
Where Arhoolie errs in this project is in their inclusion of the Eli Greene numbers, which feel rather out of place. While most songs are the fruit of one excellent session at Berkeley, the Eli Greene tracks come from another session in Como, Mississippi, and this inconsistency is evident and irksome. These tunes just don’t sparkle and boogie the way McDowell’s solo works do, and the record could have done well without them. Without a doubt, these are worthwhile songs, but had they been omitted in the interest of releasing a more cohesive album, I would not have been disappointed to have lost them.
The recording quality is also subpar on these numbers, which compounds their failure to integrate into an otherwise errorless record. Where the guitar on songs such as “I Walked All the Way from East St. Louis” comes through sleek and shiny, the Green numbers seem to have been tampered with to eliminate the high noise floor of the source cut.
In short, this is a record of truly successful takes bookended by others that pale in comparison, and this creates a tension that I’m not wild about. It is perhaps due only to the lacerating precision of technique and uncanny economy of expression found in McDowell’s solo tracks that the Eli Green recordings seem to sound so lifeless. That the distinction between the good recordings and the poor recordings is so marked, though, shows the high quality of Arhoolie’s vinyl pressing, which really is beyond reproach. This disc throws a revealing and spacious image of McDowell’s electric, driving performances, and for this reason alone is worth owning.