James Cotton Blows Blues Away

Innovative virtuoso had to give up singing, but live performance shows his continuing mastery of harmonica.

SAN FRANCISCO — You'll go a long way down the road before you'll find anyone else who can blow a harp with the power of James Cotton.

His aggressive, sometimes savage and howling harmonica style has blown apart quite a few juke joints over the years. True to form, his jump-boogie tunes and shuffles rocked the house with good-time, party music for four sets this week at San Francisco's basement blues club Biscuits and Blues.

Touring behind his just-released album Fire Down Under the Hill (RealAudio excerpt of title track), Cotton and his tight, stripped-down band delivered an energetic show with just enough snake oil to evoke his Mississippi roots.

It wasn't just Cotton's driving, hard-edged Delta blues that fueled the night. The singer, stomper and master harp player, 65, was diagnosed with cancer a few years ago (it's in remission), and his throat isn't up to singing. But he happens to have a gem in Texas blues singer Darrell Nulisch, who handled the vocals for Cotton's band with grit and a good helping of Southern soul.

"Cotton and I always can zero in on soul and boogie together," said the laid-back Nulisch, who helped form Anson Funderburgh's blues ensemble and sang with that group.

Nulisch also has performed with Cotton for three years, put out four albums of his own — including his new I Like It That Way on the Severn label — and brings plenty of emotion and Memphis-style blues flavorings to the stage.

"I'm a big Memphis [and] Stax [Records] guy. I like all that stuff from down South," Nulisch said.

Gutsy Performance

On Cotton standards such as "Got My Mojo Working" and "Rocket 88," (RealAudio excerpt), Nulisch's railroad-yard vocals blend nicely with the harmonica player's crisp, locomotive sound.

Their rendition of "Mojo" during Wednesday night's opening set cooked. Cotton yelped and jumped up off his chair, strutting a duckwalk that was pretty impressive for a 65-year-old.

"Rocket 88," a smoking blues-rock classic, got Cotton stomping his feet in unison with his thick harp sound that seems to come from a few directions, like trains coming and going down two parallel tracks.

The band was loud, especially Cotton, whose high notes could have pierced the ceiling. Nulisch was at his best on "You Don't Have to Go," a slow, gutsy Jimmy Reed song.

There's no bass or drums, so guitarist Rico McFarland, who has played with Little Milton, Albert King and B.B. King, adds deep blues rhythms and some bright, lightning-fast leads to the mix.

David Maxwell, on electric piano, laid down the basslines with his left hand, and showed he can really boogie, too.

Keeping A Hard Edge

The show opened with Maxwell soloing on a hard-edged boogie and a version of "After Hours,'' followed by an explosive take on "Stormy Monday." Then, the pair got wonderfully reckless behind McFarland's blazing guitar work just before Cotton trundled out, already blowing his harp, from stage left. It was easy to hear the soulful influence of Cotton's Delta boyhood mentor, Sonny Boy Williamson II on his style.

Cotton, stomping and yelping throughout the show, drove the band. He also gave a shout-out to drummer Francis Clay, a former mate in the Muddy Waters group that played the Newport Folk Festival in the early '60s. Clay who lives in San Francisco now, came out for the Biscuits and Blues shows.

The band built momentum throughout the show with hot boogie numbers including ''Main Street'' and ''Good Bye Baby.'' They broke up the pace with the occasional slow blues such as "Love Me or Leave Me."

On "That's All Right" (RealAudio excerpt), a tune off Fire Down Under the Hill, Cotton played it mean, slapping his right hand on the harp as he blew it.

While he takes a bit of a back seat in the band by not singing, Cotton's rich sound and hard-driving rhythms are still the glue that holds it all together.

His weathered, raspy talking voice may not be up for singing right now, but he's got a show that harkens back to those old country roadhouses and juke joints.

"His voice ain't no good for singing any more. It just cracks. The doctor told him not to sing," Nulisch said. But, he added, "He's amazing, the amount of energy he puts out up there really helps us get going."