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New Pick of the Week

Barrence Whitfield with Tom Russell, "Cowboy Mambo", ESD

March 24, 1994|MIKE BOEHM

These Northeasterners don't have the profile of the singers featured on "Rhythm, Country & Blues," a hot-selling new album of duets between country and R&B stars. But "Cowboy Mambo" is similar in concept, and the meeting results in a sampler of American roots music that is wide-ranging, well-chosen and solidly performed.

Whitfield is a Boston-based bandleader known for rollicking stage shows grounded in the rock 'n' soul tradition of Little Richard, James Brown and Screamin' Jay Hawkins. Russell, who lives in Brooklyn, is a highly regarded writer of progressive-country songs, having written such gems as "Navajo Rug" (with Ian Tyson) and "Outbound Plane" (with Nanci Griffith). Dave Alvin sought him out as a writing partner, and there's no higher endorsement for a songwriter than that.

"Cowboy Mambo," the second album Whitfield and Russell have made together, doesn't confine itself to crossing country with R&B. Instead, the duo seems bent on proving that, in the vast field of roots music, every strain is transplantable. Among the highlights are a charging rock version of a Richard Thompson nugget, "I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight"; an urgent Memphis-soul reading of the Pop Staples civil rights anthem, "Freedom Highway," and a graceful rendering of Gram Parsons' bittersweet lament, "Brass Buttons."

One of the hallmarks of authentic roots music is an emotional duality that lets us confront sadness and anxiety with music that makes us want to dance troubles away. That's covered here in "A Little Wind," a seriocomic Louisiana Zydeco stomp written by Russell and L.A. rock stalwart Peter Case. Another prime original is Russell's plaintive ballad, "Home Before Dark," which sets aside the possibility of a carefree response to troubles and probes deeply into a mind wracked by the uneasy feeling that something terrible can happen at any moment.

Whitfield sings most of the leads in a baritone that sounds like a combination of Elvis Costello and The Band's Rick Danko. His trademark banshee scream is kept in reserve for sparing and judicious use. Whitfield sometimes fails to inhabit a lyric as fully as he might--he isn't nearly wild enough in playing the young outlaw in Steve Earle's "The Devil's Right Hand," and "Insufficient Sweetie," an old-time lark that copies the scratchy sound of an old 78 r.p.m. record, should have been more funny and vital than it is. But even when Whitfield is a bit off, the material is strong enough to compensate. The backup band is excellent, dabbing on spirited saxophone, sawing fiddles, warm organ and piano, or whatever else is required to fuel this engaging ride along the roots-music rainbow.

This CD is available from East Side Digital, 530 N. 3rd St., Minneapolis, MN 55401.

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