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December 2017

Samantha Fish
Belle Of The West
Ruf Records

Samantha Fish

Samantha Fish has become one of the most creative, innovative young blues artists on the scene today. Not content with sticking with what has worked for her on previous albums, she's constantly reaching outside her comfort zone to stretch the boundaries of the blues genre. She's already done it twice this year, with the earlier release, Chills & Fever, working in the brassy sounds of '60s pop and rock 'n' roll along with a solid blues sound.

Belle Of The West (Ruf Records) takes Ms. Fish in a completely different direction. Like, real different. She headed to Mississippi, teamed up with producer Luther Dickinson (of North Mississippi All-Stars fame), and has come out with an outstanding collection of tunes with heavy elements of primal Mississippi Hill Country blues. Yeah, I'm betting that's not what you were expecting from the album title and the way she's dressed in the cover photo.

It doesn't take long into the first cut to figure out where Ms. Fish is going with Belle Of The West. Right away we hear the fife and drum accompaniment associated with the early blues of the Hill Country, with Tikyra Jackson on drums, Lillie Mae on violin and Sharde Thomas on the fife. It's earthy primitive blues, and oh so cool. "Blood In The Water" is haunting, especially the backing vocals and more of that fife/violin combo, containing plenty of gospel overtones. Ms. Fish comes in with snaky guitar and foreboding vocals, like a soul that's worn out. The backing vocals contribute to the ominous feel on this one.

Lillie Mae's violin takes us into the country-ish "Need You More," and once again Ms. Fish shows us the versatility of her voice as it sounds like this one could be on a jukebox in a Texas roadhouse. Her voice isn't quite sultry, but close, as she tells her man how much she needs him .... more than he'll ever know. The violin accompaniment here sent me a Google search to find out more about this musician known as Lillie Mae, and I now know that her full name is Lillie Mae Rische, she's played with Jack White, and now has her own album on Third Man Records.

Another cut with an ominous, eery sound is "Daughters," with Ms. Fish's vocals complemented by her own slide guitar playing and a heavy New Orleans-style drum beat.  The same foreboding tone comes across on "Don't Say You Love Me," but this time Ms. Fish's vocals are a bit more powerful, and Lillie Mae is back with tasteful violin accompaniment.

The first cover of the album is the title cut, written by James Mathus, and this one's a country-ish number on which Ms. Fish sounds very similar to Lucinda Williams. Lillie Mae is back to add violin and producer Dickinson chips in some subtle mandolin picking. The next cover, R.L. Burnside's "Poor Black Mattie," plants us firmly back in the Hill Country, with Lightnin' Malcolm joining on harmonica and "call and response" vocals. With some really good polyrhythmic drumming, it's got the raw, stripped-down urgency you'd expect from a Burnside composition.

The third cover song on the album is the Lillie Mae original "Nearing Home." It's a subtle country ballad that gives Ms. Fish a chance to excel on vocals, with harmony vocals and violin backing from the impressive Ms. Rische. Ms. Fish wraps up the album by playing some mean country blues slide guitar and spouting off sassy vocals on the uptempo "Gone For Good," on which she celebrates the fact that the man who was bad for her is out the door.

With Belle Of The West, Samantha Fish has created two of the best blues albums of the year. She's certainly on a hot streak, and I can't wait to hear what she's got in store for us in 2018.

--- Bill Mitchell



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