Williams intersperses songs with brief background stories, often humorous, to set the framework for better understanding the Mississippi blues. For example, he uses Charley Patton’s “Dirt Road Blues” to outline how 12-bar blues is arranged, and why the simplicity of this form encouraged many people to play in the south.
Of course, this is never going to be just a lecture. The accent is always on the night’s music: Williams’ sterling artistry on acoustic guitar, Kory Horwood on double bass and occasionally tea-chest bass, and Mary Tréès swapping between various forms of percussion, including washboard, snare-box and tambourine. The band is, as they say, a tight unit and clearly enjoys the show.
Standard tunes are expected and presented but sometimes with a twist, so that Mississippi John Hurt’s “Make Me a Pallet on Your Floor” is more tender than often encountered. The lyrics to JB Lenoir’s “Down in Mississippi” are carefully nuanced to emphasise its images of being hunted like rabbits, and subtle inflections are introduced to songs like Tommy McClennan’s “Whiskey Head Woman”. Robert Johnson’s “If I Had Possession Over Judgement Day” even gets the skiffle treatment.
Williams’ introduction to slide guitar is funny and erudite. Used in Mississippi Fred McDowell’s poignant “Write Me a Few Lines”, the technique might have wandered a little at first but soon took on a tighter and propulsive shape. There was an expertly rendered “Parchman Farm” (Bukka White), too.
Mention must be made of Kevin Farrant’s excellent sound engineering; not always easy to achieve in this venue.
A History of Mississippi Blues is a great night’s musical entertainment.
A History of Mississippi Blues plays again at The Wheatsheaf Hotel’s Tin Shed (39 George Street, Thebarton) on February 28 and March 14.
Read more Adelaide Fringe reviews and previews here.
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This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.