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My Mind Gets to Ramblin'

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Album Review

Even though Steve Howell was due to celebrate his 56th birthday three days after the release of My Mind Gets to Ramblin', it was only his second solo album. Howell is an accomplished fingerpicking guitarist and a musical scholar, and the disc is his treatment of country blues, including songs by and associated with Muddy Waters, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Bo Carter, Robert Johnson, Memphis Minnie, and Mance Lipscomb. Doubtless Howell himself would not claim that he and his talented band, including ace session bassist Joe Osborn, who co-produced the album, improved upon the performances of the originators of these songs. Their interpretations are spirited and exact, but never biting, starting with a version of Muddy Waters' "I Can't Be Satisfied" that somewhat belies the title. The emphasis is on getting the details right, and they do, even if the emotions underlying the music are more distilled than expressed. Still, their affection for the form, starting with the leader who sings in an agreeable wheeze, is obvious. If Howell hasn't recorded much, it's probably because he is better appreciated in a live setting than on an album that necessarily comes off as more tribute than competition to earlier performers of the material.

Customer Reviews

Fresh, vital and timeless interpretations

If blues fans think the idea of a “songster” left the planet with the late Mance Lipscomb, Steve Howell will turn that thinking around right quick in an age where songs are too often mere vehicles for guitarists to strut their virtuosity. He previously showed reverence for the integrity of the great American songbook of blues, jazz and standards on Out of the Past (released on his label Out of the Past) with fresh, vital and timeless interpretations. On My Mind Gets to Ramblin’ his focus is on country blues and the results are even more impressive as he digs deeper into the music that is his consuming passion. Howell was born on October 24, 1952 in Marshall, Texas, in the culturally historic eastern part of the Lone Star state. As a young lad he strummed folk songs, but hearing Mississippi John Hurt at 13 turned him around towards becoming a master blues fingerpicker, while moving to Shreveport, Louisiana at 17 would immerse him in the rhythmic dexterity found in the region. After a tour of duty in the Navy beginning in 1973 took him to South Wales where he played regularly with guitarist and mandolinist Arnie Cottrell, Howell returned home to Shreveport to ramble on the local scene in the late 1970s and 80s in a succession of blues and rock bands. He also began an ongoing musical partnership with guitarist Jim Caskey in the duo Howell & Caskey that has opened for a variety of national acts including Country Joe and the Fish, Anson Funderburg and Bugs Henderson. You will search long and in vain to find a warmer or more inviting sound, both instrumentally and vocally, than is heard in the 13 tracks of My Mind Gets to Ramblin’. Some is due to the playing of acoustic instruments and the unobtrusive recording technology, but the heart of the music is the soul of the man captured on disk. With the legendary veteran bassist Joe Osborn and his two drumming sons, Darren and David, augmented by guitarists Buddy Flett and Caskey giving their all, Howell lives and breathes authenticity. “I Can’t Be Satisfied” swings effortlessly as he slides on his guitar like Muddy Waters with restrained authority and convincingly sells his tale of homesickness without slavish imitation. Robert Johnson’s “Steady Rollin’ Man” has been covered many times, but here Howell transforms the original steady Mississippi work song beat into a relentless Texas shuffle driven by the riff and his propulsive bottlenecking. Likewise, the straight stomp of Memphis Minnie’s “Ain’t Nothin’ in Ramblin’” and Mississippi Fred McDowell’s hypnotic “Louise” crackle with non-electric energy while demonstrating that volume is not the only method for producing power. Every song is a treat for guitar players, with William Brown’s eponymous “Mississippi Blues” and the Rev. Robert Wilkins’ “Dirty Deal Blues” stand out showcases for Howell’s exceptionally clean, fluid and nuanced chops. Wilkins’ “Prodigal Son,” famously (and infamously) covered by the Rolling Stones in the late 1960s, here is given a rollicking, ringing workout by Howell that plumbs the inherent syncopation only hinted at in the original. The set would not be complete without a tribute to Mance Lipscomb and “Ain’t You Sorry” is a fine choice to display Howell’s wry delivery in addition to Caskey’s guitar skills. The performance also serves to show the width and breadth of Howell’s musical embrace, as does his surprising version of the classic spiritual “Joshua F’it the Battle of Jericho” that follows with tasteful chord melody worthy of the best jazz guitarists. Closing the disk is Kid Bailey’s “Rowdy Blues,” done with that combination of pathos, resignation and dignity that is the hallmark of the greatest country blues and its practitioners. Bailey is an obscure personage in the genre, but with his newest release Steve Howell has staked a serious and bonafide claim for much wider acknowledgement in contemporary traditional blues territory. -Dave Rubin Staff writer Guitar Edge Magazine

My Mind Gets to Ramblin', Steve Howell
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