Mungo Jerry re-exports the blues
by Seth Rogovoy
(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., June 17, 2004) – By the time Ray Dorset, aka Mungo Jerry, got around to playing the money song – his huge international hit from 1970, “In the Summertime” – near the end of his show at Club Helsinki on Wednesday night, the English singer had won over the modest crowd with his quintet’s genial, straightforward brand of American roots and blues.
There has always been something a little quaint and charming about Englishmen singing the blues. Often, frankly, their take on this quintessentially American music is to be preferred to the precious, overearnest attempts at authenticity that bog down so many homegrown, latter-day bluesmen.
In the hands of a group like Mungo Jerry, the music is more freewheeling and free-spirited. In particular, the band’s arrangements were clear and transparent, the instrumentalists – one keyboardist, two electric guitarists, one electric bassist, one drummer -- leaving plenty of space for the music to breathe, swinging the rhythms and rounding out the melodies.
If this sounds vaguely familiar, it should, because it’s pretty much the recipe that the Beatles rode to massive success when the Fab Four re-exported American blues and r&b to its native land. That’s precisely what Mungo Jerry is attempting to do all these years later. And if this 21st-century British Invasion is being met with something considerably less than the mania that surrounded John, Paul, George and Ringo’s arrival on these shores 40 years ago, it doesn’t mean that Dorset and company aren’t reminding a few listeners of the joys inherent in an often overlooked corner of the American repertoire, where Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie, Robert Johnson and Jesse Fuller meet and shake hands.
Dorset introduced Leadbelly’s “Midnight Special” as a “skiffle groove,” and the number was colored by walking guitar lines out of Johnny Cash, honky-tonk piano riffs and some very jug-band-like harmonica playing by Dorset. The singer, who vaguely resembles Lou Reed and who occasionally let loose with a Howlin’ Wolf-style growl, manipulated his mouth harp to make it sound like a kazoo on Fuller’s “San Francisco Bay Blues.” He also peppered a funky number he credited to Woody Guthrie with some very Robbie Robertson-like guitar licks.
When the band came around to playing its lone hit, rather than toss it off as some players might have done, they generously offered not one but two back-to-back versions of “In the Summertime.” The first was a re-creation of the original recording, replete with honky-tonk piano, jug-band rhythms on high-hat, folk-scat singing and vocal sound effects. The group followed this breezy version with a funkier, Calypso-fueled version of the same tune, ending the show on a cheerful, summery note.
[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on June 18, 2004. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2004. All rights reserved.]
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