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March/April 2023

The Cash Box Kings
Oscar's Motel
Alligator Records

The Cashbox Kings

Looking for good, old school Chicago blues and are concerned that the genre is dying off? Fear not, friends, because venerable band The Cash Box Kings are still on the scene and producing music as tasty as I've heard in a while. Led by singer Oscar Wilson, one of the best on the scene, and singer/harmonica player Joe Nosek, TCBK have released a gem of an album in Oscar's Motel (Alligator Records), 11 cuts of some of the best Chicago blues you'll hear this year.

Wilson's smoky vocals alone propel this ensemble into contention for the best band in Chicago right now, but the entire band puts together a sound that will make you feel that you're right there with them in some packed night club, chugging down an Old Style and chomping on a pork chop sandwich that you bought from a street vendor.

In addition to Wilson and Nosek, this top-notch band includes Billy Flynn, one of Chicago's best blues guitar players, Kenny "Beedy Eyes" Smith on drums on four cuts, John W. Lauler on bass, and Lee Kanehira on keyboards, as well as a couple of guest vocalists that we'll talk about later.

The album starts strong with the title cut, as Wilson shouts out his vocals in what is a mid-tempo invitation to Oscar's party, while Nosek plays good harmonica. A great start to this very fine album. The C-Note Horns provide a big, brassy intro to Wilson's travelogue through his part of Chicago, "Down On The South Side," with Flynn laying down solid blues guitar licks.

The tempo slows on a Muddy Waters downhome original, "Please Have Mercy," with Wilson's pleading vocals framed by Nosek's harmonica riffs, later turning into a monster solo that would please Little Walter. One of the honored guests, Deitra Farr, joins on vocals on the humorous mid-tempo shuffle, "I Can't Stand You," as Wilson and Farr keep telling each other what they don't like about the other, at times singing at the same time. But in the end, they profess their love for each other at the end of the phone call.

Nosek steps up to the mic with the vocals on his own composition, "Hot Little Mess," as he sings about all of the problems about a certain woman that he hopes will clean up her act so that he can take her home. Wilson kicks off "Nobody Called It The Blues" with a primal vocal intro before he and Milwaukee singer/bandleader Cameron Webb share lines about past injustices from the early days. (Meanwhile, I'm quickly making a note to dig deeper into Mr. Webb's music).

Sonny Boy Williamson's "Pontiac Blues" begins with Nosek's rapid-fire harmonica notes from the upper register of the instrument before Wilson comes in with vocals on this 12-bar blues classic. The tempo slows considerably on Flynn's own "Trying So Hard." Flynn sounds so much like Muddy on guitar and Nosek summons his inner Little Walter, making the listener think that surely this song goes back to the 1950s. It's great!

Nosek takes vocals on his own "She Dropped The Axe On Me," featuring nice interplay between guitar and harp throughout. John Németh joins in on the mid-tempo shuffle "I Want What Chaz Has," with the entire band echoing back his vocal lines and Kanehira laying down a nice piano solo.

Closing the album is a seasonal number, "Ride Santa Ride," a Christmas rocker that I had to look twice to make sure that it wasn't written by Chuck Berry. But, no, it's a Nosek/Wilson original. Rock on, Santa!

I can't say it enough. Oscar's Motel is a great, great album, proving that Chicago blues is very much alive and well with The Cash Box Kings on the scene. One of the best of the year!

-- Bill Mitchell

 

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