march 2012

(from left) Austin Brashear, Mike Whitt, Max Hightower, Danny Keylon, Mac Arnold: In full-tilt form on Live at the Grey Eagle.

Can’t Stop These Blues

By David McGee

Mac Arnold’s Blues Revival

Tight and merciless at 10 songs clocking in about six minutes short of an hour, Live at the Grey Eagle is a vivid taste of what it’s like to witness Mac Arnold’s Blues Revival (meaning Mac Arnold and his supporting band, Plate Full O’ Blues, with Austin Brashear on lead guitar; Max Hightower on rhythm guitar; Mike Whitt on drums; and Danny Keylon on bass) in full-tilt form kicking off the fourth annual Collard Greens and Cornbread Blues Festival (the sixth annual is coming on April 25-28; check the schedule here), a benefit for the band’s Foundation, which supports music and art programs in schools. Arnold’s own piledriving grievance, “Gitty Up,” opens the festivities in fine, horn-infused style, as Mac gives a no-good woman what-for in his best growling voice, before alto sax man Charles Twilley (a special guest from Arnold’s Chicago years) cuts loose with a searing solo of frightening proportions to set up Mac’s unsentimental signoff, to wit, “Gitty up, baby! Get on outta here!”

Mac Arnold’s promotional video for the fifth annual Collard Greens and Cornbread Blues Festival

“Gitty Up” sets the tone for the evening, as the band rolls out a scorched earth attack as rousing as it is unceasing. Mac knows how to do these things. Starting out in a South Carolina band that occasionally featured a fellow named James Brown, he headed for Chicago in the ‘60s and worked with the biggest names on the blues scene at the time, meaning the likes of Muddy Waters, James Cotton, Otis Spann…you get the drift. From there he went west, to L.A., to help his buddy Don Cornelius on Soul Train (he also played bass on the theme song for the hit Sanford & Son TV sitcom) and get into camera and editing work at major studios. In 1990 he returned home to South Carolina and took up organic farming; gradually, he eased back into the music scene, ultimately making the acquaintance of the gents who comprise his laudable supporting band, Plate Full O’ Blues. Age has given his voice weight and authority—he always had personality—and at times he sounds not unlike his man Muddy Waters, at other times you can detect a thick, Albert King vibrato in his voice, which he deploys effectively in lamenting a wayward love in his jittery treatise, “True to You.” He has his own way with a lyric, though, which is why a tried-and-true lowdown blues such as “Drivin’ Wheel” can sound fresh again in his hands, especially when he gets some support from Brashier’s lead guitar, wailing and stinging everything in sight as the powerhouse rhythm section secures the bottom.

The value-added treat on this night is a set of classic blues featuring Muddy Waters band alumni “Steady Rollin’” Bob Margolin (guitar) and drummer Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, who are joined by the Fabulous Thunderbirds’ stellar vocalist/harmonica master Kim Wilson. The latter takes charge of a scintillating “Love Attack,” playing a mean harp, shimmering and moaning plaintively during those moments when he’s not singing lead in his distinctive swaggering style. An aggressive rendering of “Sloppy Drunk” is Margolin’s big moment, featuring his weathered lead vocal and feisty guitar solo driving the arrangement as Wilson’s harp weaves its way through the track, complementing the vocal and adding rich atmosphere. “Big Eyes” delivers a swinging lead vocal himself, on “Big Boss Man,” and everyone gets it going on a six-minutes-plus strut through “Got My Mojo Workin’,” with Arnold delivering a rousing vocal and Wilson simmering delectably on harp. The album has such energy you wish it would just keep on going. So play it again. And again.

Live at the Grey Eagle is available at

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