James Cotton - vocals, harmonica; Matt "Guitar" Murphy - guitar; George T. Gregory - saxophone; Charles Calmese - bass; Kenny Johnson - drums
James Cotton had some mighty big shoes to fill when he replaced Muddy Water's harmonica player, Little Walter, in 1954. Having learned how to wail from none other than Sonny Boy Williamson himself, Cotton was well prepared, and over the next 12 years, he played an integral role in Muddy Water's music as well as the Chicago blues scene in general. By 1966, he was prepared to make it on his own and formed the James Cotton Blues Band, releasing his debut album for Verve the following year. Along with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Cotton's band soon became favorites among the burgeoning blues/rock scene in San Francisco, through memorable performances at the Fillmore Auditorium and rock venues across America. In the 1970s, he formed the James Cotton Band, featuring the outstanding guitarist, Matt "Guitar" Murphy. This band became legendary, playing to packed houses around the world. Cotton's roaring vocals and the masterful instrumental abilities of this band dazzled everyone who listened and the group's relentless high energy, more often than not, had audiences up on their feet, dancing, screaming and sweating right along from the minute Cotton took to the stage. This early 1973 performance at SMU, when the James Cotton Band opened for Mahavishnu Orchestra, is a prime example of the early 1970s lineup. Playing before an audience well accustomed to instrumental virtuosity, this performance is an undeniable testament to the instrumental prowess of these five musicians, who deliver an absolutely incendiary performance.
The recording begins with the core band warming up on two extended jam numbers, prior to Cotton himself hitting the stage. The first, "Watermelon Man," begins in progress. This jazz-inflected exercise is essentially a massive guitar solo for Matt Murphy, who immediately displays blazing dexterity on guitar. Next up is an extended instrumental improvisation on Carole King's "It's Too Late," that is absolutely gorgeous in both its melodic execution and musicianship. Before Cotton even appears, these two performances reveal a phenomenally talented band, overflowing with originality and creativity.
When Cotton hits the stage, everything kicks up a notch as they first blaze through a fiery take on "Everyday I Have The Blues." The "Sweet Home Chicago" and "Hoochie Coochie Man" that follow are a nod to Cotton's bluesy Chicago roots. His high energy cover of "Jackie Brenston & the Delta Cats' classic, "Rocket 88," and the slow blues of Little Walter's "Last Night" are sharp and tight. The first full-fledged harmonica blowout comes next on a sizzling take on "Cotton's Boogie," before they venture back with a double dose of material from Cotton's debut album. Both B.B. King's "Sweet Sixteen" and the "Good Time Charlie" that follows will be welcomed by fans of Cotton's 1960s era and this band takes this material to another level that is arguably even better than his classic original 1967 recordings.
They bring the set to a close with another extended instrumental workout that allows each member of the band to solo over a thoroughly impressive 10 minutes. Throughout this set, Cotton is the ultimate showman, literally sucking the reeds out of his harmonicas with his prodigious lungpower. Murphy's guitar playing has never sounded more inspired and he and Gregory's soulful sax are delightful throughout. The rhythm section of Calmese and Johnson are never less than astonishing here, proving them to be equally adept at blues, jazz, rock or virtually anything in between. To call them propulsive is a major understatement, as they vacillate between tight grooves and explosive improvisational flights.
Needless to say, the audience demands an encore and Cotton delivers. When they return to the stage, they pull out all the stops with a blazing jam on "The Creeper," with Cotton blowing his harmonica so hard, it's a wonder that the keys didn't decompose in his hands. One listen to this and fans of J. Geil's band classic harp blowout, "Whammer Jammer," will know exactly where Magic Dick got his frenetic ideas from. They conclude the performance with the audience fully engaged and participating in a sing-along to "Goodbye My Lady," a Todd Rungren/Moogy Klingman composition that features an infectious melody that refuses to let go of the listener.
Few bands could give the Mahavishnu Orchestra a challenge in the instrumental virtuosity department, but the James Cotton Band raise the bar to an astonishing level here. This performance is absolutely blazing with energy. Fans of James Cotton will be thoroughly captivated by this set and those who are only familiar with Matt Murphy's refined guitar work with The Blues Brothers will be devastated by his incendiary guitar playing here.