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Shoulder to Shoulder

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Album Review

Guitarist John Cephas and harmonica man Phil Wiggins, both natives of Washington DC, first joined forces in 1977, and for nearly 30 years now they've been turning out modern, shined-up interpretations of traditional rural blues, with Cephas increasingly adding his own songs to the mix. To their credit, the duo doesn't really try to replicate the traditional material they tackle, but rather they interpret it within their own framework, which means a lot of the rough edges are knocked off, an approach that is either a good thing or a bad thing, depending on where one stands on the issue of performance purity in the blues. Cephas & Wiggins just do what they do, and what they do is take marginal music (marginal as far as the general public is concerned, that is) and spiff it up for accessibility. Shoulder to Shoulder is hardly a departure in that regard, featuring smoothed out versions of Charley Patton's "Dirt Road," Blind Boy Fuller's "Three Ball Blues," Sleepy John Estes' "Broke and Hungry," and Skip James' "Catfish Blues" alongside a half dozen Cephas originals. Cephas & Wiggins manage to make the country blues sound almost joyous, and if there is such a thing as upbeat rural blues, then these guys are its poster boys. Which is fine, because the blues, for all the genre's endless musing on loss and misery, started out as Saturday night party music, and is, at the fundamental center, supposed to entertain. These guys understand that. Shoulder to Shoulder isn't an innovative, bold, or startling album, but it is a steady, bright, and comforting one, and fans of the duo won't be disappointed.


Formed: 1984 in Bowling Green, VA

Genre: Blues

Years Active: '80s, '90s, '00s

The duo of acoustic guitarist John Cephas and harpist Phil Wiggins enjoyed a partnership spanning several decades, during which time they emerged among contemporary music's most visible exponents of the Piedmont blues tradition. Both were born in Washington, D.C., although Wiggins was a quarter century younger than his partner; they met at a jam session in 1977, and both performed as regular members of Wilbert "Big Chief" Ellis' Barrelhouse Rockers for a time prior to Ellis' death. Their music, rooted...
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Shoulder to Shoulder, Cephas & Wiggins
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