Winnipeg International Jazz Festival
Manitoba Theatre Centre
Four stars out of five
JAMES Cotton’s mojo was working overtime as the legendary blues harmonica player captured the love of 725 fans Tuesday night during a jazz festival mainstage performance.
Got My Mojo Workin’, the classic blues song, includes the line "but it just don’t work on you." Sometimes, it seems, it works on a crowd, or maybe Cotton gets special dispensation because he’s the man who convinced Muddy Waters to include Mojo in his repertoire, where it became the blues singer’s signature song.
There were a few songs, though, where a hapless man looked out the window to see his baby walking away from him, a staple theme, of course, in the Chicago blues sound of which Cotton was such a big part.
Cotton, who will turn 79 on July 1, spent a dozen years in Waters’ band and remembers earlier visits to Winnipeg, in the late 1960s and early ’70s, and joked with the audience that "It’s been a long time since I was here."
But there were enough people who remembered and Cotton got a standing ovation as he walked onstage playing the blues harp after his three-piece band had warmed up the audience with a couple of tunes.
Throat surgery prevents Cotton from singing, but his harp playing remains strong and let’s face it, that is what has drawn fans since he first picked up a harmonica.
Even if he doesn’t play as much as in his heyday, he plays well, with feeling, and proves this is not just some nostalgia act.
He surprised the audience at one point by playing unamplified as his band dropped its sound down a notch.
Darrell Nulisch does a good job on vocals and Cotton’s band — guitarist Tom Holland, bassist Noel Neal and drummer Jerry Porter — is a tight unit, if a little heavy-handed in spots.
The blues is rowdy, gutsy music, designed to get the blood boiling and the feet moving. But it shouldn’t beat you over the head in the process, and a couple of times on Tuesday night it did.
That said, Holland is a very good guitarist, with a nice touch on the slide guitar. Neal has some tasty moves on the bass, and had the crowd jumping on a wild solo on a Cajun tune from his home state of Louisiana. Porter is solid on the drum set, and capable of a rowdy solo when given the opportunity.
The set list was heavy on classic blues tunes, such as Rocket 88, Don’t You Know That I Love You, Blow Wind, Blow and That’s Alright.
But a highlight of the show was He Was There, a song from the harmonica player’s latest recording, 2013’s Cotton Mouth Man. The lyrics describe Cotton’s awakening as a musician in the Mississippi Delta and the move north, where he became one of the originators of the famous Chicago blues sound.
The highlight, of course was the riotous Mojo. That’s where the essence of Cotton the blues man comes alive.