Pulling Blues Out of the Sky
Catfish Keith Lays Down a Foot-stomping Groove
"Jump Street" Article from Acoustic Guitar, Issue #64, April 1998
 
by Gayla Drake Paul
 
Amsterdam Blues FestivalOne magical night many years ago, at the General Store in Stone City, Iowa, I sat hypnotized by the foot-stomping groove laid down by the baby-faced boy with the big voice and wild eyes.  Keith's guitar work was already impressive then, but over the past 20 years he has grown into one of the most exciting guitarists in any genre.  "Every time I go on stage, I feel like a tightrope walker, 'cause I do tend to play close to the edge," Keith says.  "I like the view better out there."

His sixth recording, Twist It, Babe!, featuring Keith on guitars, vocals and feet, and Marty Christensen on acoustic bass, has just been released on Fish Tail Records.  Considering that two of his first five recordings were nominated for the W. C. Handy Award for Best Acoustic Blues Album and that all five have reached No. 1 on independent radio station playlists, this is something to get excited about.  Twist It, Babe! was released in America just days before a two-month-long European tour, his 14th since 1992.

All the songs on this recording are traditional, songs that Keith says he fell in love with 20 years ago and has been playing ever since.  He describes this collection as "an American treasure trove of the deepest diamonds in the rough."  Keith's great love and delight in this music make Twist It, Babe! completely irresistible.  "I was voracious as a youngster," he recalls, "playing and learning entire repertoires of country blues, jazz, gospel, and island music.  I'd listen to a song till it was preying on my mind, and then I would commence to make my own arrangement.  So these songs aren't covers so much as re-creations."

The title track was written by Bo Carter, whom Keith describes as the "master of double-, single-, and even half-entendre."  It's a charming but warped arrangement, played with gusto and sung with a crooked smile.  The haunting "Long-Haired Doney" is a hypnotic one-chord blues by Do-Boy Diamond in which Keith practically sings a duet with himself, alternating between a raspy baritone and a sweet falsetto.

The two masterpieces of the set are Jessie Mae Hemphill's "Eagle Bird" and the timeless, traditional, deep-Delta slide-and-moan, "Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground."  "Eagle Bird" soars and wails, showcasing Keith's stunning harp harmonics and power string bends, made all the more challenging and impressive by his use of "big, fat strings" (see Gearbox, page 102).  This is quintessential Delta blues, and Keith swims deep in the tradition.  "What inspires me about truly transcendent blues artists is their ability to spontaneously improvise entire songs," Keith says.  "When Bukka White was asked where he got his songs, he said, 'I just pull 'em out of the sky.'  I love that."

At the other end of the spectrum, there are foot-stomping party pieces like "Your Biscuits Are Big Enough for Me," "Walk Across the Ocean," and "Jack, I'm Mellow."  "Back in Nagasaki," attributed to the Quintet of the Hot Club of France, is a rousing close to this collection of gems.
 

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