Bottleneck genius Mississippi Fred McDowell took his hill-country groove on the road in 1971. Not just on his typical circuit from rural house parties to backcountry barbecues around his north Mississippi home base of Como, where he was the region’s leading brand of six-string intoxicant. (R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough would later inherit that business.) No, the 67-year-old farmer and his electric guitar ping-ponged, big time, from coast-to-coast for a pair of shows you’d gladly have emptied your pockets to have earwitnessed: Tacoma, Washington’s Court C Coffeehouse in the spring and New York City’s Gaslight Café for the fall.
With one CD devoted apiece, Jesus on the Mainline puts you in a seat at both events. Between them, Saturday night blues (“Mojo Hand”), Sunday morning spirituals (“Get Right Church”), and weeklong churns (“Don’t Mistreat Nobody (Cause You Got a Few Dimes”)) build out McDowell’s repertoire already flush with such staples as “61 Highway,” “Write Me a Few Lines” (a
Bonnie Raitt favorite) and the lurching fatalism of “You Got to Move” (nicked by the Rolling Stones). As you’d hope for from an expert versed in cottonfield partying, the music continually lives in the moment. Tempos may spontaneously accelerate (turning the mild-mannered “Baby, Please Don’t Go” into a barnburner), lyrics can materialize out of thin air, and songs often
end abruptly by instantly falling off a cliff whenever Fred has had his fill of the riff.
The approach is no different than back home at his desolate shack—except for the lack of kudzu and katydids here. And for gaining onstage accompaniment of chubby basslines pumping in extra muscle, commiserating with the guitar’s grumbling low notes while setting off its bursts of cutting treble.
No one sounded like Fred, as these performances attest. That slide of his keeps unspooling elastic, interlocked strands that mimic what he sings without ever letting up on the steady drive. Neither the secular (“Worried Blues”) nor the sacred (“Jesus on the Mainline”) are immune from getting ‘rocked’ Mississippi-style, back and forth as the floorboards get stomped. But for as
much as “Good Morning, School Girl” chugs or “Kokomo Blues” outright bolts, McDowell just as easily flipped a switch and skulked as blue as blues could ever come.
Robert Johnson professionally diagnosed the problem this way, per “Preaching Blues”: “The blues is a low-down, achin’ heart disease.” Despite different signifiers as well as style of bottlenecking the guitar, the same dire situation and end result sends McDowell writhing over “Letter from Hot Springs” or the comparably crippling “Mercy.” Somehow, “Levee Camp Blues” and “Oh That’s Alright” manage to sink even lower, their broodingly slow rides consumed by dilemma. Their ooze is midnight surreal.
Given the span across these 27 collective tracks, whatever isn’t fit for juke-joint dancing—the heavily rhythmic pulse defies bodily stillness—is alternatively built for moonlit trancing—that same clockwork rhythmicity exerts mesmeric powers, especially once brought down to a crawl. Either way, you’re brilliantly covered. All that plus McDowell’s crown jewel—“Shake ’Em on
Down”—jumps into action here in a most aerobic form. In a sudden, jolting rush of adrenaline and glassy riffing, you’re off with Fred on a tear down his fail-safe means to kickstart a rowdy evening of carousing.
Label: Sunset Boulevard Records
Release Date: March 31, 2023
Reviewed by Dennis Rozanski