Cotton Comes To Chico

ELVIN BISHOP, JAMES COTTON & RUTHIE FOSTER 

3/15, Laxson Auditorium, presented by Chico Performances 

Although Elvin Bishop is the headliner, James Cotton is the real attraction here. Almost 80, and having contracted throat cancer in the ‘90s, he will not be singing (in my opinion, the most soulful vocalist of the three), but still cuts a ferocious Chicago blues harp. We can only hope he’s not brought in at the 11th hour by a game show announcer.

Chico is a blues town, a poor man’s Austin, but rarely has it seen such pedigree. Cotton may well be the last surviving blues master. He played with Howlin’ Wolf in the early ‘50s, and Muddy Waters in the mid ‘50s through ‘70s. Mentored by the great Sonny Boy Williamson (whose band he inherited), he became the foremost exponent of country-style blues harp after the decline and death of Little Walter, whom he inducted into the Hall Of Fame.

The Chicago style emerged in the mid ‘40s at Pepper’s Lounge, wherein the harp (harmonica) and a cheap bullet mike are cupped through a gritty amp—like being gloveless in the snow, or HBO fellatio. Cotton’s technique has steadily evolved from his raw solo debut with the Jimmy Cotton Quartet (with Otis Spann) in the late ‘50s, and a subsequent band with string bass and bass trumpet. Charlie Haden played with him in the 90’s, as did John Lee Hooker, and Clifton Chenier. Cotton won a grammy for Deep In The Blues and Muddy’s Hard Again.

Elvin Bishop (aka “Pigboy Crabshaw”) is best known for “Fooled Around and Fell In Love,” and other hits, but nobody cares about that now. With the recent trade-paper idolatry (and re-issue box set) of Mike Bloomfield, Bishop’s role as his guitar foil in the Paul Butterfield Blues Band also takes on renewed significance, but it’s like comparing Keith Richards to Jimi Hendrix.

“I root for him [Bishop] because he’s an underdog and he plays a 335. What more can you ask for?” (my L.A. friend Fidel, who concurs that Bishop’s solo albums were lackluster). “He plays like a neanderthal, but these days that’s refreshing.”

He sounds like a high-school garage Fidel on Butterfield’s East-West, but two LPs later, he’s evolved into Bloomfield’s jazzy psychedelia (being a scholar and Physics Major). Bishop gravitated to the Fillmore West scene, collaborating with Starship, The Dead, and The Allmans.

Even Bishop’s not wild about his vocals, so luckily there’s acclaimed newcomer Ruthie Foster: a gospel voice (thinned and mannered by youth) closer to Bonnie Raitt than Aretha, whom she’s been compared to. I predict a strong barroom, roadhouse approach throughout. In the hands of masters, and away from You Tube, this could be great (but on “Juke Joint” it’s numbing). I would crawl through my own vomit (like my dad when he was acting like “Nani”) if Cotton would play slow and mournful and show these pony-tailed boogie boys with bad Hawaiin shirts what it’s really about.