Eddy "The Chief" Clearwater,
Rock 'n' Roll City
(Rounder/Bullseye, 2003)

Hard not to warm to an album whose cover features an African-American -- Eddy Clearwater -- wearing the headdress of an American Indian chief, alongside four members of his guest band, Los Straitjackets, clad in headmasks in the inimitable fashion of Mexican wrestlers. That may or may not make some larger cultural statement -- probably not -- but it does serve notice that all concerned have silliness and mischief in their hearts, and won't hesitate to show off whenever the occasion calls for it. Even the title exudes amiability. It's not "Rock City" but "Rock 'n' Roll City," and if I had to choose which one to be in, I'd take the latter every time.

Mississippi-born and Chicago-bred, Clearwater took his last name not from his parents (he came into the world under the more pedestrian moniker Edward Harrington) but from wordplay on "Muddy Waters." It makes sense. Clearwater is not the rough and tumble troubleman McKinley Morganfield (Muddy's birth name) but a genial, gentle good-timer whose music may not exactly move your soul but it will move your legs out onto the dance floor. If his music is anchored in '50s Chicago blues and that decade's rock 'n' roll, it doesn't follow that Clearwater is a Chuck Berry clone, though his original "Hillbilly Blues" is sheer, delirious Berryana. The next cut, though -- an instrumental and Clearwater co-write, "Monkey Paw" -- is a gorgeous surf-guitar tune right out of the Dick Dale playbook.

"Back Down to Earth," another of the album's nine originals (of 13 cuts total), is an easygoing testament to Clearwater's commitment to roots music, swinging loosely like a country blues on its way to the big city. "Before This Song is Over" could have been a Brook Benton hit from the early 1960s. Clearwater doesn't have Benton's vocal chops, but he captures Benton's sense of romantic longing and conjures up almost exactly the sort of arrangement one would have heard on this (sadly) imaginary Benton recording.

I suppose it's true that nearly everything here may remind you of something you've already heard. Clearwater's melodies and lyrics have an obvious-enough temporal reference frame -- they nod to popular, mostly (though not exclusively) African-American, electric-guitar music spanning 1950 through 1963, approximately -- but that's OK. If you're looking for an artistic roadmap and you know how to drive the roads there indicated, you'll get there safely, and nobody will complain when the party pulls into Rock 'n' Roll City.

I had hoped for a moment that "Peggy Sue" would turn out to be the "Peggy Sue," Buddy Holly's immortal, hiccuppy celebration of Peggy Sue Gerron. I was curious to know how a blues-raised African-American performer would reimagine it. Turns out, however, that this "Peggy Sue" is another Clearwater original: "Her name is Gabriella/I call her Peggy Sue." You'd swear there was a banjo on it, even though -- at least that the notes admit -- there isn't. It is, like everything else here, friend to ear and heart.

- Rambles
written by Jerome Clark
published 3 April 2004

Buy it from Amazon.com.