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November 1998

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Surprise

Pete Special
Mozart Street
Nation Records

Pete Special - Mozart StreetAt first I didn't think I was going to like Mozart Street, from Chicago guitarist Pete Special. But I kept listening, and gradually this quirky kind of blues sound grew on me. So I listened to it again, and liked it even better. Real interesting stuff.

Special was the guitarist with former Chicago blues/soul/frat music band Big Twist & The Mellow Fellows. His vocal style will never be compared to that of the late Big Twist. Instead, he's got kind of a Tom Waits type of gravelly voice, and makes effective use of his limited vocal skills. But the music is much more upbeat than most of what we've heard from Waits. There's also a bit of a Doctor John sound at work here. The tight backing band includes an excellent horn section and a solid rhythm section.

Mozart Street starts off with the gritty, yet perky original "Cool World," in which Special sings about a cool world, a bebop city, a place with lots of neon and music in the square. The background chorus helps to make this number a special one.

Sax player John Bowes is the hero on cut number two, "Mozart St.," featured on several very good solos. Now this tune sounds like something Waits would record.

"Those Were The Days" is much closer to Chicago blues than the previous numbers, so Special gets to play a little more serious guitar here. It's a heartfelt tribute to his days with Big Twist & The Mellow Fellows, and I believe he mentions nearly everyone who was ever part of that band.

I was a little suspicious when I noticed that a cover of "When Something Is Wrong With My Baby" was included here. This Sam & Dave tune has been recorded by some pretty good singers, and I wondered whether Special would have the pipes to do it justice. Fear not, friends --- this is a great, great version. The smoother-sounding Roberto Aguilar shares the lead vocals with Special; the two contrast each other quite well. I'd like to hear more from Mr. Aguilar --- who is this cat? Bowes again contributes a nice sax break.

A funky original which will have you boppin' your head in time is "Inside Out," another tune which gives Special the opportunity to get in some decent guitar work. One of the catchiest numbers on Mozart Street is the aptly-named uptempo song "Are We Rockin' Or What?" ... " ... are we cookin', are we kickin' some butt, I gotta know, girl, are we rockin' or what?..."

The album ends with two soulful blues covers, "Breakin' Up Somebody's Home" and Bobby Rush's "Chicken Heads." The former has been recorded way too many times, but Special's raspy voice gives it a way overdue fresh treatment. And the latter is an appropriate ending, a funky, offbeat song for a funky, offbeat CD.

Mozart Street might be more than the surprise pick for the month; it could come in as one of the surprises of the whole year. No, it's not all straight blues. But it's all great music. Check it out if you feel like venturing away from the straight eight-bar blues.

- Bill Mitchell

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