Blacks, Whites and the Blues
Mark T. Small
Lead Foot Music
Mark T. Small is a bit of a chameleon. The artwork on his self-produced CD portray an ageless blonde man dressed somewhat "hippie-ish" in beads and turned up Nehru collar. Also apparent are fancy tooled cowboy boots peeking out from leather pants. The back of the CD shows Small holding an acoustic guitar. OK, so he doesn’t dress the part, what's music like, you ask? A quick view of song selections indicate LOTS of blues songs that have been done, done, and redone. So what DOES Small bring to the table?
Song one on the CD is a cover of Muddy Waters' “Trouble No More” done with a combination of the “Smokestack Lightening” riff coupled with the "You Don't Love Me Baby" riff. Seems to work for Small, and it works for me. Thus the stage is set: covers of electric-style blues songs (mostlty), done on an acoustic guitar, with Small playing electric guitar riffs. “Boogie Woogie Guitar Man” is the only original on the disc, but it allows Small to show off his acoustic licks while keeping a Hell-bent pace. The pace is so fast that Small’s lyrics almost miss delivery. Need another look at “Little Red Rooster”? Mark Small provides one on cut three. Again, rather than taking a down home approach, Small treats this cover as if he were playing an electric guitar (with some hints of SRV) in a band situation. "Hesitation Blues" comes as a slight surprise in that Smalls plays it without guitar histrionics. Nothing new here, but maybe that's meant to be a surprise. Small switches to an electric guitar for John Lee Hooker's "Bang Bang Bang Bang" answer to "Boom Boom Boom. Wait a minute - where's a new read on a takeoff on a song that's a takeoff on a song? It's not here. So what is Small's point with all the covers if he plays a lot of them like everyone else? Maybe it's to show us that he CAN cover a range of tunes in his style and the style of others. I guess not every blues CD has to break new ground. Next up is Mississippi Fred McDowell's "61 Highway", done on a National metal body guitar and it, too, is delivered in a haunting stripped down to the bone arrangement: voice, slide guitar and foot. "Old Gray Mare” is a traditional country folk song that Small deftly picks and sings. Another traditional finger-picked tune follows with "Six White Horses." Are these the "Whites" referred to in the title? Next is, believe it or not, "The Thrill Is Gone," done slowly with speedy runs over the 1/2 time version. Hmmmmm. Might work better live, Mark. Song ten is another Fred McDowell tune, "A Few More Lines." Small does a fine job of alternating slide lead lines over the thumping rhythm notes. To me, this is the best cut on the disc. Like "Rooster," does "Catfish Blues" need another examination? Small thinks so. Well his version echoes many of the versions you've heard. Small is unstoppable - next up is THE most covered song in the blues: "Sweet Home Chicago." His is a rock n rolly version with the Robert Johnson lyrics. Nuff said. Small closes the disc with two instrumentals, "A Georgia Camp Meeting," a mid-tempo fingerpicked number from Kerry Mills and a Scott Joplin compliment called "Solace."
My sense is that Mark Small loves playing guitar, loves his influences, and wanted a CD to sell at live venues. Although not much of this breaks any new ground, there is a certain boldness in Small's taking on some of the old chestnuts and putting his spin on them. If you are looking for new and refreshing, I guess look elsewhere. If you are looking for a solid disc of mostly blues music done mostly on acoustic guitar, then you should check out Blacks, Whites and the Blues.
Reviewed by David Stine