By J Howell
Listeners unfamiliar with Jimbo Mathus as a solo artist might be aware of his tenure as a member of Squirrel Nut Zippers, a band that for many is unfortunately and unfairly remembered as a one-hit novelty act. Or they may know him as the instigator at least partially responsible for Sweet Tea and Blues Singer, two albums that may well be bluesman Buddy Guy’s finest work since he was a young man; or perhaps as part of roots-music supergroup the South Memphis String Band; or maybe even as a member of the North Mississippi Allstars.
While Mathus has garnered plenty of attention—and at least one Grammy nomination—as a collaborator, it seems that he is often overlooked as a solo artist, which is a damned shame, as Mathus is a confirmed house-rocker live.
While the six songs on Blue Light are by no means unenjoyable, the record doesn’t quite ignite the earbuds the way Mathus lights up venues in person. To be fair, I should point out that for review purposes, I was only able to listen to Blue Light digitally: The record is available on vinyl, and I suspect it might be more enjoyable heard the way it was intended, in full analog glory. Overall, the six songs here tend mostly toward decidedly Southern-inflected sounds, a mixed bag of influences like outlaw country, pedal steel-sweetened Gospel, and old school R&B.
None of the tracks here are bad, but they’re often just not as engaging as they could be. Again, part of that could be the drag of ones and zeroes versus a needle in a groove, as there’s a slight but persistent thinness to much of the record when listening via iPod.
It’s not hard to imagine that each and every song on Blue Light would benefit greatly from some sweat and whiskey, played loud in a barroom. On CD (then ripped to iTunes), however, the bulk of the material here ventures into shoulder-shrug territory, not bad but not remarkable, either. The songs here are more than decent, but for the most part don’t feel particularly inspired, at least not enough to raise them above less-than-warm sonics.
There are moments on Blue Light that hint at Mathus’s brilliance, however, and in particular, “Haunted John” is worth the price of admission alone, taking a sort of classic (in the pre-1967 sense) rock tack not unlike some of the more upbeat moments on Johnny Dowd’s brilliant Wake Up The Snakes, but less dark and more exuberant. Overall, though, some listeners may walk away from Blue Light feeling that Jimbo Mathus is capable of better.
August 4, 2012: Memphis, TN; The Brass Door
August 10, 2012: Hopson, MS; Hopson Plantation Commissary
August 11, 2012: Clarksdale, MS; Delta Blues Museum Main Stage
August 17, 2012: Asheville, NC; Jack of the Wood
August 18, 2012: Saxapahaw, NC; River Mill Village
August 23, 2012: Bradfordville, FL; Bradfordville Blues Club
August 24, 2012: Key West, FL; The Green Parrot
August 25, 2012: Key West, FL; The Green Parrot
August 26, 2012: Key West, FL; The Green Parrot
August 30, 2012: Mobile, AL; The Blues Tavern
August 31, 2012: Taylor, MS; Plein Air