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CD REVIEW -- Cash Box Kings
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The Cash Box Kings

Hail to the Kings!

Alligator Records

13 tracks/50:48

Cash Box Kings Hail CD

by Greg Easterling


          The King is dead, long live The Cash Box Kings on the release of their brand new Alligator Records album just in time for the 2019 Chicago Blues Festival, where the band recently held court on the Front Porch stage. The time is right for dancing in the aisles when a blues band of this caliber takes the stage. Hail to the Kings! is the next step in a long career that includes nine previous albums and a band history that stretches back to 2001 when founder/harpist Joe Nosek put the group together in the culturally friendly environs of Madison, Wisconsin. Nosek and the Cash Box Kings eventually migrated to the Home Of the Blues, Sweet Home Chicago where Windy City blues man Oscar Wilson was invited to co-lead the band.


          Hail to the Kings! is another leap forward for the Cash Box Kings who garnered a great deal of notice for their 2017 Alligator label debut, Royal Mint which was named one of the Top Ten Blues Albums of the Year by the UK's esteemed Mojo magazine. Just last year, the Cash Box Kings picked up a nomination for a Blues Music Award for Blues Band of the Year. It's hard to believe they won't be nominated again this year on the strength of their latest recording here.


          This new release features eleven original songs plus two others, most of them co-written by Nosek and Wilson. In a genre often dependent on tradition and familiar covers, the number of good original songs being produced by the Cash Box Kings is especially impressive. The subject matter is wide ranging including topics ripped from today's headlines as well as more conventional man-woman issues handled with a mix of pathos and humor.


          For Hail to the Kings! the Cash Box Kings continue to be helmed by Nosek on harmonica and vocals along with Wilson on most lead vocals. Blues veteran Billy Flynn, renowned for his true-to-tradition Chicago blues stylings (he played on the soundtrack for the film Cadillac Records), supplies the lead guitar. Newest member John W. Lauler alternates between electric bass and the upright version. Everything is anchored by Chicago star drummer Kenny “Beedy Eyes” Smith, son of late blues drumming legend Willie “Big Eyes Smith” who backed Muddy Waters. Kenny also leads two of his own bands, The Housebumpers and the Friends Band, and just released his first solo album titled Drop The Hammer.


          The Cash Box Kings play with the verve of skilled past revivalists like Little Charlie and the Night Cats and especially Anson Funderburgh and the Rockets who also benefited from the presence of an authentic blues elder and front man in the person of the late great Sam Myers. In Oscar Wilson, the band has a versatile veteran presence who is very much his own man while able to reach back for that traditional Muddy “Mississippi” Waters sound vocally. 


          Hail to the Kings! leads off with “Ain't No Fun (When The Rabbit Got The Gun),” an instant crowd pleaser that the Cash Box Kings perform in concert soon after Wilson takes the stage mid-set as he did at Buddy Guy's club recently in Chicago. Nosek delivers some great harp with some raucous call and response vocals between Wilson and the rest of the band.


          Next, the Cash Box Kings waste no time bringing on a famous guest for “The Wine Talkin'” which features the guest vocals of none other than blues superstar Shemekia Copeland. Her manager and personal song-smith John Hahn helped to write it with Nosek and Wilson. The Kings let Copeland have the first verse before Wilson drops in. They confess to each other in this humorous, partially-spoken, tale of seduction. And there's a certain equality of the sexes in the words of this song where one side is not blaming the other. In concert at Buddy Guy's, the band was joined by Buddy for a live number onstage, again demonstrating that the Cash Box Kings are quite equal to the task of supporting legendary performers as well.


          The next two numbers, “Take Anything I Can” and “Smoked Jowl Blues” display the instrumental range of the band with varying tempos and the addition of Queen Lee Kanehira from Japan on keyboards. Nosek shines in his solo on the former while supplying some highly effective fills on the latter. Flynn steps out front too, displaying the chops that have made him one of the city's most sought after guitarists; he has played with the likes of Eric Clapton, Charlie Musselwhite, Kim Wilson, Jimmy Rogers, Sunnyland Slim, Pinetop Perkins, Luther Allison and more.


          “Back Off” is a track that features Nosek on lead vocals and harp, usually performed early in the Cash Box Kings club set. It's a chance for him to blow off some steam with his animated stage moves live as well as a vehicle for his harmonica talents. Once again, the call and response backing vocals are a lot of fun and give the number a sort of jump blues feel.


          Then it's time for the album's first cover in the number six position. That distinction goes to “I'm The Man Down There”, a Jimmy Reed song that takes the other side of the familiar “One Way Out” blues theme. Wilson plays the part of the man waiting patiently down stairs for the exit of another who is making time with his woman upstairs! Though sometimes forgotten these days, Jimmy Reed was a popular blues performer from the 1940s onward who also collaborated with “Bad Boy” Eddie Taylor. His work has been a major influence on many rock figures like Eric Clapton, Steve Miller and Boz Scaggs, (who also covered a Reed song on his most recent release). It’s classic Chicago blues artists like these that the Cash Box Kings are “hailing” in their music.


          “Poison In My Whiskey” passes the midpoint of the album with a traditional blues reference that evokes the method that killed blues legend Robert Johnson as the story goes. It's another original number that harkens back to Muddy Waters territory with Wilson's authentic vocal and Flynn stepping forward with some especially lyrical soloing. Nosek takes the second solo and makes the most of his time here as well.


          The next song, “Joe, You  Ain't From Chicago” is priceless fun set to a bouncy Bo Diddley beat, although you must be from the Windy City to truly appreciate what's going on here! This Nosek-Wilson original exploits one of the major rivalries that divides us locally: city vs. suburbs. It’s in keeping with in the tradition of Cubs vs. Sox, North Side vs. South Side, and barely remembered now, Bears vs. Cardinals (Chicago). Nosek and Wilson trade verbal shots here but it's all in good fun, mostly! And the opening reference to Johnny's Beef is more than worth the price of a combo Italian beef/sausage with sweet or hot peppers! Listen for references to Maxwell Street, Cabrini-Green, Oak Park, Barrington and Elmhurst.


          The local references take a more serious turn in “Bluesman Next Door” as it tackles the issue of the segregated nature of Chicago's neighborhoods. Wilson challenges the listener who enjoys listening to black musicians at Chicago clubs and festivals but would be uncomfortable if one of their onstage idols actually moved in next door. When was the last time you heard a band of any skin color or genre address this issue since the 1960s? But the Cash Box Kings are not afraid to do so. Xavier Lynn steps in for Flynn on lead guitar for this cut.


          “Hunchin' On My Baby” is a Nosek original that you're likely to hear live before Wilson takes the stage. Nosek does a great job of alternating lead vocals with harp fills which is obviously harder to do live than in the studio due to the magic of overdubbing. And he still has enough breath to lay down an impressive solo before the track disappears at 2:53.


          The tone turns somber and angry next with the “Jon Burge Blues,” a song that name checks the notorious Chicago Police detective whose specialty was torturing murder confessions out of innocent suspects, many of whom would end up on Death Row. Wilson tells the story in great detail, sometimes assuming the identity of one of Burge's victims. Burge was eventually brought to justice but not before many lives were ruined and millions of dollars paid out to the victims of his crimes.  Once again Nosek and Wilson wade into territory that is unlikely to be addressed anywhere these days.


          The album's other cover is a rather obscure choice but the kind of pick that is impressive in its own way. The Cash Box Kings resurrect “Sugar Daddy” from the catalog of Cali blues man Mercy Dee Walton, better known for the blues standard, “One Room Country Shack,” often associated with Mose Allison and later covered by Blood, Sweat and Tears. Mercy Dee died in 1962 at the age of 47 not long after recording a final set for the Arhoolie label. His memory is preserved here with a faithful version of his original that the Cash Box Kings often play live.


          The Cash Box Kings close the album with a tongue-in-cheek look at an ultra-contemporary issue in “The Wrong Number.” It's a short but sweet ‘n' sour look at sending the right text message to the wrong person. Who would ever do that?


          Other contributors to Hail to the Kings! include guitarist Little Frank Krakowski on rhythm, Derek Hendrickson on drums and Alex Hall on percussion. The album was recorded, mixed and mastered in the Windy City with love from Hall, Collin Jordan and Alligator Records founder Bruce Iglauer. Joe Nosek produced the whole affair.


          Once again, the Cash Box Kings have come up aces with a fine release that helps carry the blues forward into another decade. And whether living in the city or suburbs, it's another reason to keep blues lovers coming back to Chicago for more. Hail to the Kings! Long live the Cash Box Kings!!


Greg Easterling holds down the 12 midnight – 5 a.m. shift on WDRV (97.1 FM) He also hosts American Backroads on WDCB (90.9 FM) Thursdays at 9 p.m.





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