Your Complete Guide to the Chicago Blues Scene
Elvin Bishop’s Big Fun Trio
By Robin Zimmerman
Elvin Bishop’s biography reads like a “who’s who” of rhythm and blues. As a physics major at the University of Chicago, his first gig as a guitarist was with Junior Wells in 1962. He was later propelled into the musical stratosphere with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band.
Following that auspicious beginning, Bishop went on to front his own group and also performed with the likes of the Allman Brothers, Grateful Dead, John Lee Hooker and many others.
Bishop’s guitar skills famously won high praise from country’s Charlie Daniels in “The South’s Gonna Do it Again.” More recently, Bishop’s 1975 hit, “Fooled Around and Fell In Love” gained new fans after its appearance on the Guardians of the Galaxy film soundtrack.
After garnering a 2014 Grammy nomination for his Alligator release, “Can’t Even Do Wrong Right,” Bishop was inducted into the “Rock and Roll Hall of Fame” in 2015. He joined the Memphis “Blues Hall of Fame” in 2016.
Don’t let all those accolades fool you into thinking Bishop’s taking himself too seriously. He’s back with a rollicking 42-minute romp of a record fittingly entitled “Elvin Bishop’s Big Fun Trio.” On this Alligator release, Bishop is joined by Bob Welsh on guitar and piano along with percussionist/vocalist Willy Jordan to form a threesome that specializes in good-time, blues based music.
The 74-year old Bishop’s been associated with stellar harpists dating back to his Paul Butterfield Blues Band days. So, it’s not surprising to find that he’s hanging out with some harmonica heavyweights on this new release. Kim Wilson, Rick Estrin and Charlie Musselwhite are all featured on the CD. Musselwhite also does double duty as a vocalist on “100 Years of the Blues.”
“We’ve been around since the Dead Sea was sick,” is one of the memorable lines in “100 Years of the Blues.” But, Bishop’s clever lyrical twists are evident on all of his compositions beginning with the first track, “Keep on Rollin’,” where he comments on the current political scene. After singing that, “there’s not enough Richards and too many dicks,” he goes on to say, “you can’t tell the difference between your Congress and a circus!”
Rather than getting mired in politics, Bishop and company “keep on rollin’” by refusing to “let the message get you down.” Welsh’s barrelhouse-style piano riffs and some spoken word back-and-forth between Bishop and Jordan highlight this opening track. Bishop also engages in some playful guitar one-upmanship.
After that exhilarating opener, the trio moves on to the first of five well-crafted covers. The second track, “Honey Babe” is a Lightnin’ Hopkins composition that originally appeared on Bishop’s 1974 Let it Flow release. For the 2017 incarnation, the tempo is slowed down slightly with a bluesier vibe. This track also allows Jordan to showcase his skills on the Cajon—a South American percussion instrument.
Welsh’s piano artistry is highlighted on the next track, “It’s You Baby.” As he enthusiastically bangs on the ivories, an equally energized Kim Wilson joins in on harp. Vocalist Jordan conjures up images of Little Richard with an impressive falsetto.
Bishop’s lyrical stamp is firmly planted on the next track. On the slower paced and snare driven “Ace in the Hole” he asks, “Whatcha gonna do before the tavern closes up on you?” After this lament, he lays out several hot slide licks and a few mournful “e-yos.”
It’s back to having fun and picking up women on “Let’s Go.” Some fancy fretwork and Sly & the Family Stone style “wah wah’s” are highlights on this infectious track.
“Delta Lowdown” follows “Let’s Go.” Like the name implies, this tune is heavy on harp and boogie-woogie piano riffs. Rick Estrin steps in with some impressive harmonica work on this number.
While everyone from the Rolling Stones and the Grateful Dead to Rod Stewart and the Rebirth Brass Band has covered Bobby Womack’s “It’s All Over Now”, this classic gets a fresh, new spin on the Big Fun Trio’s version.
Charlie Musselwhite is the harpist, co-writer, and fellow conspirator on “100 Years of the Blues.” Here, he and Bishop reflect on their iconic careers that add up to a combined century of musical history and memories.
After this look back, Bishop isn't afraid to kick out a country twist to a Fats Domino classic. “Let the Four Winds Blow” is heavy on slide guitar, perky piano and even some down-home yodeling.
The next track, “That’s What I’m Talking About” should come with a caveat— one should not listen to this when hungry! From the jambalaya at Mother’s Restaurant in New Orleans to soul food in Seattle, Bishop name checks many of his favorite food stops. Yum!
The Big Fun Trio’s take on Ted Taylor’s “Can’t Take No More” is the next helping on their musical menu. Here, they stay true to the original’s doo-wop roots with Jordan turning in some impassioned high-pitched vocals.
Another Bishop original, “Southside Shuffle” brings the CD to a satisfying close with some smooth slide guitar work` by Bishop. This instrumental number is the perfect way to slow down after the madcap musical journey through various genres and featured performers.
Bishop said that, “in a trio there’s no place to hide. You need to be totally into it all the time and you got to have the right guys.” When it comes to Elvin Bishop’s Big Fun Trio, the ringleader has assembled the perfect crew to release a CD that manages to merge light-hearted fun with some serious musicianship.