November 2004

James Cotton - Baby, Don't You Tear My Clothes
Telarc CD-83596
Released: 2004

by David Cantor

Musical Performance ****
Recording Quality ****
Overall Enjoyment ****

At first, you think, "OK, lively, welcoming instrumental first track, the players stepping out before anyone sings and distracts the listener with words." Then you think, "Wow, Cotton sings the title track really well." But that isn’t Cotton, the great harmonica virtuoso -- it’s Bobby Rush.

You read the liner notes and realize you’ve got a treasure trove of hall-of-famers singing classic R&B tunes and an old folk ballad, "Mule Skinner." Cotton obviously brought these great singers and players together so he could get down on the harmonica without wasting his breath. And he does get down. Cotton long ago mastered the blues harp -- it’s his life, this instrument that so often is pulled out of a pocket by a singer or guitarist and butchered. Cotton’s style is paradoxically subtle and striking. Look at his instruments in the cover photos. He’s not playing "your father’s blues harp."

The performers here give master classes in how to sing this music. Listening to Odetta sing "Key to the Highway," you’d think it’s just like talking, that anyone can do this. But it’s her decades of dedication to the details that make her difficult art sound that way. Another wonderful track is "Stealin’, Stealin’," with Dave Alvin on vocals and guitar and Chris Gaffney on vocal harmony and tambourine. But every track is well done. Peter Rowan, Doc Watson, Marcia Ball, Jim Lauderdale, C.J. Chenier, and Rory Block are among the star performers.

Tear My Clothes offers great moments that will make aficionados salivate. It also invites new listeners in, with R&B "standards" delivered with great confidence and talent. So, even though I’m not big on shopping, I must say it will be hard to find a better holiday gift for anyone remotely capable of liking R&B or rock’n’roll with roots attached.