It doesn’t get much more authentic than this, the latest album from Jimmy “Duck” Holmes, the Mississippi bluesman who owns the Blue Front Café, one of the most famous juke joints still on the go in the South. Now, Jimmy is 72 years old, so not the oldest wheel on the blues train – Buddy Guy is 83, after all. But Cypress Grove sounds like blues that has been discovered in a time capsule and dusted down for the present day.
At the heart of the album are two things. First, there’s the groove Holmes imparts with the riffs he plays, whether on acoustic or rhythm guitar. And second, there’s his voice, which has an ancient blues quality. The two elements are there, virtually unadorned, on the opening ‘Hard Times’ – spare strumming and picking, and a low moaning vocal, often wordless – that set the tone for what will follow.
|Jimmy "Duck" Holmes - down, down deeper and down|
There is a bit more elaboration across the rest of the album, mind you, as producer Dan Auerbach and a handful of other musos add subtle accents to that central groove. But it’s done in the most simpatico fashion imaginable, so that ‘Devil Got My Woman’ is still centred on Holmes’ haunting vocal melody, amid subterranean bass, shimmers of cymbal, casually scattered acoustic chords, and brief guitar licks.
Yeah, ‘Catfish Blues’ features a guitar break that winks at Hendrix, who of course also recorded the song, but in its styling the solo still seats itself in the contemplative vibe created by Holmes, along with earlier sparks of electric guitar, and subtle percussion from Sam Bracco, who here and there puts bongos to good use in addition to an everyday drum kit.
The subtlety is such that listening to Cypress Grove is akin to being hit over the head with a gold brick wrapped in thick velvet. The version of ‘Little Red Rooster’ is simply magnificent, with a scratchy guitar opening and more bongos leading into a wonderfully simple descending riff – the kind of thing Jimmy Page might once upon a time have been inclined to pocket when no-one was looking, and later turn up to 11. Another guitar tickles away in the background while Holmes patiently tells his tale, then some sax from Leon Michels slides into the mix, snaking around the groove, and some tasteful guitar notes float around – and then it fades out. Three and a half absorbing minutes, job done.
‘Goin’ Away Baby’ is all pitter patter drums, ticking guitar and what sounds like Jew’s Harp, conjuring up a trance-like vibe into which a few stabs of tough, mid-pitched guitar are injected. ‘All Night Long’ develops a different, almost Latin rhythm, anchored by a three note bass line from Eric Deaton that’s right in the pocket, creating a laid back feel over which Marcus King delivers a woozy slide guitar outro. And Deaton's mastery of the nagging, insistent bottom end is apparent throughout, not least on the title track, to which Auerback adds a creepy electric drone in the background while Holmes sings about "When your body starts aching, and your body starts to get cold".
The album closes with ‘Two Women’, which is topped and tailed by a classic blues riff, and in between lopes along on an offbeat rhythm, with brushed cymbals and bursts of acoustic guitar, and a spiky, minimalist guitar break bringing a dash of modernity to Jimmy’s relationship musings.
Cypress Grove is not about catchy tunes or earworms. It’s not about guitar showmanship either, so devotees of blues rock shredding should look elsewhere. Jimmy “Duck” Holmes is an inheritor of the Bentonia, Mississippi blues tradition, and Cypress Grove mines that rich seam - elemental minor key stuff that’s shaped into mesmerising Delta grooves. These roots go deep, real deep. Close your eyes, pin back your ears, and follow ‘em down.
Cypress Grove was released by Easy Eye Sound on 18 October 2019.