Albert Cummings's blues
by Seth Rogovoy
(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., April 25, 2004) – For the better part of the last decade, Williamstown singer-guitarist Albert Cummings has been making a name for himself on the local and regional scene as an extraordinarily talented blues guitarist and singer. With his recent signing to the acclaimed blues label Blind Pig, which is due to release Cummings’s first nationally-distributed album in September, Cummings is presumably ready and willing to be measured as a top-tier performer.
Based on his scorching first set at Club Helsinki on Saturday night, Cummings has the makings of a major leaguer. He is a stunningly proficient guitarist, with an obvious love for and a seeming ease with the vocabulary of electric blues-rock as laid down by such avatars as B.B. King, Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan. Indeed, Cummings counts among his top fans two of the late Vaughan’s Double Trouble bandmates -- Chris Layton and Tommy Shannon – and his upcoming album for Blind Pig is being produced by Jim Gaines, who worked with Vaughan as well as Carlos Santana and Huey Lewis.
Cummings knows how to make his guitar talk, sing, laugh and cry. On a slow blues that kicked off his 75-minute opening set, he ended one of many fast runs with a particularly resonant slurred note, bent way out of pitch and then slowly brought back to its home tone. He made good use of the bluesman’s call-and-response technique, in which the guitar comments on, accentuates and punctuates the singer’s phrases: a line about being accused was answered with a series of stinging, accusatory, finger-pointing notes, while the phrase “you’re playing with my mind” was illustrated with a particularly taunting, downward-pointing note.
Cummings is also a fine if at times understated vocalist. Understatement has its place in the blues, and in his matter-of-fact, somewhat weary tone he recalled Clapton as a vocalist as much as or more than he seems to have been influenced by him as a guitarist.
In bassist Dan Broad and bassist Conor Meehan, Cummings has assembled a terrific power trio capable of fueling his projected ride into the big leagues and beyond. Broad’s big, fat, flattened-out bass notes provided the sturdy foundation over which Cummings could sing melody, solo with single-note lines, and rip dense clusters of chordal figures without need of a second guitarist or having to concern himself with establishing a song’s harmonic reference. Meehan worked the mid-range, slicing and dicing Cummings’s long lines into bite-sized nuggets, sculpting them with mathematical wizardry into rhythmic, percussive statements of their own.
Cummings was an amiable frontman. With a smile a mile wide, he chatted up the crowd – many of whom he seemed to know by name – and teased his bandmates with some classic blues shtick. His “aw shucks” demeanor was undoubtedly genuine, and given the genre and racial connotations of Cummings’s music, anything else would have smacked of artifice or worse. This worked fine on the more rock-oriented material he played. It worked against him, however, on some of the more deep-seated, traditional blues that were more reliant on force of personality. A number like Muddy Waters’s “Mannish Boy” boasts as much outlandish, lascivious sexual braggadocio as any gangsta rap. Cummings’s congeniality rendered those boasts limp and unconvincing.
[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on April 26, 2004. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2004. All rights reserved.]
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