Johnny Rawls,
Tiger in a Cage
(Catfood, 2016)

If talented, seasoned musicians live long enough and keep away from the touring performer's mood-altering, chops-corroding temptations, they often achieve a mastery at what they do that renders them immune from the machinations of even the grumpiest of critics. Those of us who hunt professionally for something to complain about can only step away and hope that when we get around to writing we don't gibber in the manner of slobbering fans.

Unless you harbor some inexplicable grudge against old-school soul-blues, you won't find much to nitpick in Tiger in a Cage. Actually, it's probably the case that those nits aren't there to pick. It helps, too, that this recording comes via the consistently excellent Catfood Records, based in El Paso and directed by bluesguy/songwriter/utility-man Bob Trenchard, whose taste and hearing are uncomfortably close to flawless. Jim Gaines, who produces this disc, isn't bad either.

Not young, Rawls has been at this since he was a teenager, serving much of his early career as musical director for the revered soul star O.V. Wright (to whom Rawls' Remembering O.V., reviewed in this space on 18 January 2014, pays memorable tribute). In his career since Wright's death in 1979, Rawls has accumulated fistfuls of awards from blues publications and organizations along with a devoted cult following.

In common with most Catfood releases, this one draws on the services of the label's razor-sharp house band, the Rays, with the sound occasionally fattened by guest vocalists and players. Among them is Mississippian Eden Brent, who turns in a sexy, pulse-quickening performance on Trenchard/Rawls's "Southern Honey." I have no idea if it's intentional, but on Jagger/Richards's "Beast of Burden" Rawls' playful riff on the phrase "pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty" -- eventually attached to "girl" -- echoes a comic verbal tick one associates with Larry David. (I haven't heard the Rolling Stones' original, but then, every Stones song after Beggars Banquet is new to me.) Rawls also thrillingly reinterprets songs associated with Sam Cooke ("Having a Party") and Jackie Wilson ("Your Love is Lifting Me").

My favorite cut, though, is Rawls' signature piece "Red Cadillac," which evokes the traveling bluesman, the South and the joys of life on the highway between Memphis and New Orleans. Metaphorically speaking, that stretch of road is where you'll find Tiger. Get inside, sit back and enjoy a mighty fine ride.

music review by
Jerome Clark

23 January 2016

Agree? Disagree?
Send us your opinions!

what's new