Blues Bytes


June 2017

The Cash Box Kings
Royal Mint
Alligator Records

Cash Box Kings

I've enjoyed past recordings from The Cash Box Kings, considered one of the truest blues ensembles on the blues scene today. But until I delved into their history, I didn't realize that this fine, fine group of musicians with roots in Madison, Wisconsin has been around in one form or another since 2001 --- and with nine albums to their credit. Started by harmonica player Joe Nosek, the band really started to gain street cred with the 2007 addition of the very excellent soulful singer Oscar Wilson. Other rotating band members on their latest disc, Royal Mint (Alligator), include guitarists Billy Flynn (his new solo album is also reviewed in this Blues Bytes issue) and Joel Patterson, drummers Kenny "Beedy Eyes" Smith and Mark Haines, and bassist Brad Ber, as well as multiple guest players.

Royal Mint kicks off with a rockin' blues "House Party," a number that would have easily fit into a 1940s- or 1950s-era jump band's repertoire. In fact, Amos Milburn recorded this one in 1955. Each instrumentalist gets a chance to shine here, but I especially like the sax work of Al Falaschi. Up next is a cover of Jimmy Reed's "I'm Gonna Get My Baby," with Wilson putting the appropriate backwoods sound to his vocals and Nosek coming in with solid harmonica accompaniment. Wilson also handles a lesser-known Muddy Waters song, "Flood," a slow blues that allows Lee Kanehira the chance to stretch out on piano.

What I like best about this newest album is the very creative and topical themes on several of the Nosek / Wilson originals. I'll keep politics out of this review by limiting my comments about the content of "Build That Wall," only to say that it's a tongue-in-cheek spoof about our country's current leader and his followers, featuring Nosek on vocals. Listen to it and you'll see what I mean. My bi-partisan statement is that Flynn plays some really nice guitar licks on this up-tempo tune --- liberals and conservatives alike should be able to agree with that statement.

Wilson follows with a lament about the violence on the streets of Chicago on "Blues For Chi-Raq," and Flynn really takes off on several extended guitar solos reminiscent to the playing of the late Robert Ward and his magical Magnatone amplifier. We hear Wilson's more humorous side on the self-descriptive "If You Got A Jealous Woman Facebook Ain't Your Friend." In other words, if you're a lady's man out on the town then you better watch those selfies! This is getting repetitive but Flynn plays some nice guitar here and Nosek jumps in with a smokin' harp solo.

It's impressive how well this band jumps back and forth between city blues and country blues, with the latter genre represented by the stark "Traveling Riverside Blues," a Robert Johnson classic that allows Paterson a chance to show off his skills on the slide guitar. Oh, so nice.

Nosek steps back to the mic for the slow honky tonk blues, "Daddy Bear Blues," highlighted by Kanehira's tasteful piano work and mandolin from Flynn. The rhythm section of Haines and Ber also stands out here. We pick up the tempo with "Sugar Sweet," another Muddy original on which Wilson summons his inner Morganfield by getting just the right Muddy-style inflections in his voice, and then tackles the slow blues, "I'm a Stranger," a classic from the Earl Hooker & Junior Wells songbook. Flynn even provides the some of the same slide guitar licks as the original.

Another stark, slow blues is Wilson's somewhat autobiographical composition, "I Come All The Way From Chi-Town," joined here only by Paterson's guitar and Nosek on the country blues harmonica. It's brilliant in its simplicity and emotion. But then the mood changes completely with an up-tempo Clifton Chenier cover, "All Night Long." No accordion here, but the standard Cash Box Kings instrumentalists do a great job in providing the right wall of sound, especially Flynn's incendiary guitar solo.

Wrapping up this fine baker's dozen of tunes is a fun Nosek original, "Don't Let Life Tether You Down," with Kanehira's honky tonk piano driving the tune through its short 1:54 duration. There are several important lessons here, such as " ... don't let money run your life ..." and " ... so leave that Facebook alone and your iPhone at home ..."

Royal Mint has already earned a spot on my Top Ten list for 2017. It's one of the best I've heard all year.

--- Bill Mitchell



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