Nothing challenges blues musicians like playing in a guitar, bass and drums trio. Fierce commitment, top chops and exceptional songs are required to keep the format fresh and enticing to an audience. Mississippi Fever from St. Louis proved their bona fides on their self-titled debut in 2010.
Extraordinary singer/guitarist Brent Barker, virtuoso bassist Ted May and head snapping drummer Tom May have now taken their simmering power and pugnacity up a notch with their latest release, 300 Miles To Memphis. Eight originals of love and lust plus two choice covers are augmented by Steve Grimes and Rick Steff (keyboards), and Brandon Santini (harmonica).
The hypnotic, funky “I Feel Like Superman” casts a “voodoo chile” spell, Barker rocking his wah pedal, his passionate vocals seducing. His genuine, unforced blues voice commands his throbbing shuffle interpretation of Robert Johnson’s salacious “Traveling Riverside Blues,” his solo twisting like a muddy road through the Delta. The minor key, smoothly shuffling “Steal Away Your Love” features metaphorically poetic lyrics while Steff teases the ivories.
The dramatic, descending riff of “Downtown Train” adds heat to Barker’s braggadocio. Driving every tune like a heavy riff machine, Barker keeps “Till the Sunrise” pumping. The hip-shaking “Black Dress” provides the proper funk for a lascivious masculine plea. A consummate trio guitarist, Barker fills with chords, propulsive riffs and concise, yet expressive solos. On the slinky slow blues “Out All Night,” however, he totally hijacks the spotlight with strikingly emotive lead lines while baring his heartbreak lyrics. The high stepping title track references the mileage between St. Louis and Memphis rolls and tumbles while Barker crows and Santini honks exuberantly on his harp. Barker confronts an evil paramour on the funky, minor key “The Devil’s Got You Now,” his burning guitar fueling the damnation. An unaccompanied guitar intro with seamless licks and chords leads to a set closing, show-stopping, epic version of ZZ Top’s “Jesus Just Left Chicago,” the band grooving incessantly behind the fluid electric keyboard lines of Steff as Barker squeezes the neck of his Stratocaster until it screams in exultation.
If the blues of Brent Barker and the May brothers was a college course, it would lead to a graduate degree. Deep and wide as their namesake mighty river, it thrills, chills and provides sustenance for the soul.