There’s perhaps no better way of describing blues supergroup The Mannish Boys than as written in the liner notes to their latest offering, where they’re portrayed as “a virtual blues festival in a single band.” As applicable as that statement could be to any of the band’s past projects, which have included such gems as That Represent Man, Lowdown Feelin’, and Big Plans, it’s particularly true on this week’s two-CD release Double Dynamite (Delta Groove Music), with twice the number of songs (26 of them) and special guests as previous albums, including such names as Mud Morganfield, Elvin Bishop, Mike Finnigan, Bob Corritore, Rod Piazza, James Harman, Jason Ricci, Junior Watson, and Kid Ramos, among others. Add to that the already über-talented core lineup of Finis Tasby (vocals), a new featured vocalist in Sugaray Rayford, harmonica man Randy Chortkoff, guitarists Kirk Fletcher and Frank Goldwasser, bassist Willie Campbell, and drummer/percussionist Jimi Bott, and what you get is a remarkably entertaining just-under-two-hours of blues, including such classics as Little Walter’s “Mean Old World,” Muddy Waters’ “Nineteen Years Old” and “Mannish Boy,” Albert King’s “Born Under a Bad Sign,” James Cotton’s “West Helena Blues,” and T-Bone Walker’s “You Don’t Love Me.”
Continuing on the theme of the collection’s title, the first disc of “Atomic Blues” (the second is labeled “Rhythm & Blues Explosion”) kicks off with a superb version of Son House’s “Death Letter” that makes for a soulful debut on vocals for Rayford, accompanied by some killer slide guitar riffs from Goldwasser. A heartfelt “Mean Old World” includes a switch to Tasby on vocals, with Elvin Bishop and Rod Piazza providing blues with a feeling on slide and harmonica, respectively. A few songs later comes the slow, patient blues of the Jackie Payne-sung, 7-minute-plus “She’s 19 Years Old/Streamline Woman” featuring solos from Piazza on harp and Goldwasser on lead guitar, before Muddy Waters offspring Mud Morganfield makes his first appearance with Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Elevate Me Mama,” joined by Bob Corritore on harp for both this and Mud’s later number, a quite fitting “Mannish Boy.”
Tasby returns to the mic, with Jason Ricci on harmonica, for Little Walter’s “Everybody Needs Somebody” and James Harman provides some deep, Charlie Musselwhite-like vocals and harp on “Bad Detective.” Willie Dixon’s “Bloody Tears” is one of the album’s more rocking numbers, with Goldwasser on both vocals and slide, along with a driving “Please Forgive Me” that nicely features Fletcher on guitar and Chortkoff on harmonica.
Forced to choose between the two discs, we’d probably have to say we prefer the first just slightly. But we’re glad no one’s really asking, because there’s plenty more to like on the set’s second half, including the addition of some terrific horns on many of the songs. Keyboardist Mike Finnigan (Phantom Blues Band) also makes several appearances on B-3 organ, including on the opening “Born Under a Bad Sign” that has Tasby singing and Elvin Bishop on lead guitar; a great instrumental in “Cold Sweat” with Fletcher on lead guitar, Goldwasser on rhythm guitar, and some cool electric bass from Bobby Tsukamoto; and a funky “Drowning on Dry Land” sung by Rayford with Chortkoff on harmonica. But perhaps Finnigan’s greatest contribution to the project comes in the form of “Mr. Charles Blues” (Ray Charles), which allows Finnigan to demonstrate not only his talent on piano but also his soulful vocals.
In addition to the first disc’s “The Hard Way” (Otis Spann) with Rayford on vocals and Rob Rio on piano, disc two’s “You Don’t Love Me” (T-Bone Walker) is one of several jazzy numbers you’ll find on the set, with Tasby on vocals and Bill Stuve and Fred Kaplan putting in fine work on upright bass and piano, respectively. Other highlights from the second disc include the Rayford-sung “Why Does Everything Happen to Me” featuring Kid Ramos on guitar and Rio on piano, a “I Woke Up Screaming” that finds Tasby supported by Junior Watson on guitar and Kaplan on piano as well as some swinging horns, and the, well, groovy, Nick Moss-sounding closer “Hittin’ the Groove” with Harman on vocals and harmonica, backed by his Harmanaires (vocals) and Ramos (guitar).
While the dedication of the set “to the memory of Phillip Walker, Pinetop Perkins, Hubert Sumlin, Willie ‘Big Eyes’ Smith, Jerry ‘Boogie’ McCain, Mojo Buford, Louisiana Red, Johnny Otis and Etta James” is a sobering reminder of the many losses the blues world has recently endured, the recording itself is as fine a testament to the immense blues talent still with us as you’ll find in any one place. Between its two discs, scores of guests, and the incendiary nature of its title, no one can accuse The Boys of failing to deliver plenty of bang for the buck on this one.