Mississippi Sheiks Tribute Album – Sunday, August 31, 2008

Current mood:  busy

John Hammond and The Carolina Chocolate Drops

Next stop… Ottawa, Ontario. There were a number of reasons for this, but primarily, the Carolina Cocolate Drops were playing there at the folk festival, and John Hammond lives in New Jersey, which isn’t too far away. So we decided to record those 2 artists there, hook them up together and record them separately and to see what happens!

The Carolina Chocolate Drops are a fantastic band that I met on stage about a year ago at the Vancouver Folk Festival. I was playing with the Sojourners, and we were put on a stage with the Chocolate Drops, Ndidi Onukwulu and Po’ Girl. It was a memorable collaboration, and we all made lots of noise and had a blast. The Chocolate Drops were one of the first bands I thought of when this project started, as they are probably the closest group today to that old-time strngband concept that, in a way, started with the Sheiks.

John Hammond has also been a really positive force in this project, being one of the first people to commit to it and adding a lot of enthusiasm.

I had a recording planned with another group in Toronto the week after, so it also made sense for me to go to Ottawa, which is not very far from Toronto (not far for Canada, that is!). I flew in, and John and his wife Marla arrived about a half hour later. I met them and we piled into the car and headed to the hotel, which was out in Kanata, a ways out of Ottawa.

The next day was the session, and I arranged with Dom from the Chocolate Drops to hook up at the hotel and we’d all drive to the studio. This plan backfired, as the studio was actually about a 45 minute drive away, and I realized I’d have to make 2 or 3 trips to get everyone there! So that’s what we did, but eventually we go the studio. It’s called Liverpool Court, and has been around for many years under a different name, but they were appealing to me because of a good selection of old mics and some nice preamps and other gear.

We got there eventually, and started to set up. I decided that I wanted to record the Chocolate Drops in the most traditional, old-school way that made sense, and really just document a group playing very much in the style of the sheiks, in much the same way as the sheiks would have done it. Except for the fact that the sheiks would have probably only used one microphone for the whole group, I couldn’t resist at least using a few of the nice old RCA ribbon mics on hand at the studio. But the group set up in a tight circle with no isolation between them, and we got the sounds up and running – Dom plays guitar and sings, but also plays bones, jug, banjo and probably other things too. Rhiannon was on fiddle. She’s a great old-time style player, and then Justin plays banjo, guitar, mandolin and sings. Unfortunately we had no mandolin to use, so we scrambled a bit to figure out what to do for the 3rd instrument. In the end, it was decided that we would record their song “Too Long” with only Dom and Rhiannan. It’s a beautiful little tune that really doesn’t need that much. The ribbon mics brought out a classic vintage sound, and captured lots of space around the room. After a few takes, we had a good version of it, and decided to try and throw another tune or two down. Dom and Justin started talking about working up “the jazz fiddler”, another shieks tune, so they went off and started playing it. But then I mentioned that it was strange that no one who was in the project had asked to do “sitting on top of the world” – probably the sheiks most famous tune. It was the first tune I ever heard them play back in Vancouver, so I knew they already knew it. Right away we decided we’d have a go at that one, so we set all three of them up, with Rhiannon still on fiddle, Dom on guitar, and Justin on banjo and singing. It was fantastic, and we did 3 takes and signed off on it.

Sometime soon I’ll have to decide which song we’ll actually put on the record – “too long” or “sitting on top of the world”…

I had to run out the door to pick up John and Marla Hammond back on the other side of the city, so I was gone for a while. Adding a long drive and traffic to a situation like a recording session is a really bad idea, and a lesson well – learned. We took well over an hour to get back, but the Chocolate Drops went for some food and were ready by the time we got back.

John Hammond had picked the song “Stop and Listen Blues” which is really the same song as “Smokestack Lightnng” made famous by Howlin’ Wolf and many others. John started playing on his Martin guitar and singing and it sounded great, but I really wanted him to play some slide, and he’d brought his National guitar as well, and was happy to get it out and play it on slide. So we had him sorted out, and tried out a bunch of different scenarios with Rhiannon and Justin playing fiddle, Dom playing jug, bines, guitar, whatever was around. The song has kind of a funny form though, and in country blues, a lot of the chord changes are implied, rather than played, so it’s actually way harder to play along with songs like that than you would think. Guitar wasn’t working, we tried kazoo, which added a nice flavour, but was a little too over the top fort he song, jug, bones, banjo, and in the end, decided the best thing to try was with John playing and singing, Dom on the Jug, and Rhiannon on fiddle. Very much like a sheiks recording again…

We did about 3 versions of that setup, and they do sound fabulous. Then I asked John to do the song again, just on his own, because I wanted to have a really nice solo option for the record as well.

I’m writing this from Toronto and haven’t been home yet to my studio, so I haven’t even been able to check out what we did and decide which version I want to use, but we do have some incredible sounding stuff, and it was a great session to record.

The studio was great and really respected my preference for all the old gear that hadn’t been used for a while. In fact, I had told them before the session what I wanted to use, and they had a great selection of mics ready and wired for me when we got there, so kudos to them.

We all headed back to the hotel, and had some more great food and had a good few hours to hang out together and chill out.

Bill Frisell

In other news, back in Seattle, Bill Frisell has completed his track for the recording, which I’m very excited about. I’ve met Bill a number of times at festivals, and opened for him a few times, so we know each other a little. He’s one of my favourite musicians and writers on the planet, so it was a big deal for me to know he was into contributing. His producer, Lee Townsend and I are pals as well form a few years ago when Lee produced a record for my group Zubot and Dawson, back in 2001. Lee arranged for Bill to do a session in Seattle, and oddly enough it happened on the same day I recorded John and the Carolina Chocolate Drops. Nothing to report from my end, because I wasn’t there! But they did take some photos, which I’ll post soon. I suggested that Bill try “That’s It”. The only instrumental I know of by the sheiks. That’s what he ended up doing, with a trombone player named Steve Moore, also from Seattle. I can’t wait to hear it. It’s a great little ragtime piece that Bill will undoubtedly put his own stamp on.

The record as completed so far
Geoff Muldaur – The World is Goin’ Wrong
John Hammond – Stop and Listen Blues
Bob Brozman – Somebody’s Gotta Help You
Oh Susanna and Van Dyke Parks – Bootlegger’s Blues
Bill Frisell – That’s It
The Carolina Chocolate Drops – “Sitting On Top of the World” (or maybe “Too Long”)

More info and order the CD here:



~ by stevedawson on October 6, 2008.

2 Responses to “Mississippi Sheiks Tribute Album – Sunday, August 31, 2008”

  1. Hi Steve

    Is someone going to cover “He Calls That Religion”? or “She’s Crazy ‘Bout Her Lovin'”? Those are two of my favourites. English blues guitarist Brendan Croker did a fine version of “Lonely Boy In Town” a long while back. I think that’s a Mississippi Sheiks’ song.

  2. The Sojourners are doing “He Calls That Religion”… and I think the Sparrow Quartet is going to do “Lonely One in this Town”. That could change, but that’s how it stands right now.

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