(2009 Blue Midnight Records)
The Cuda Café was a terrific venue—a café with a small stage downstairs and a full-size stage with a state-of-the-art sound system upstairs. Unfortunately, its quaint Deerfield location turned out to be just a little farther than people wanted to venture for a show. Eventually the financial stress took its toll, and it closed at the end of 2007. With their most recent release, Cuttin’ Heads Live at the Cuda Café, the Cash Box Kings give us a little something to remember it by. In the liner notes, band leader Joe Nosek (harmonica, guitar, vocals) claims that it was twenty below that night in February, but from the sound of it, things were pretty hot inside. Though you can’t tell how large the crowd is from their cheers and applause, you can tell they are having a great time. And why not? It certainly sounds like the Cash Box Kings are too.
Frequent guests at Buddy Guy’s Legends in Chicago, the Cash Box Kings play authentic Chicago and Delta blues circa 1940 to 1950. So authentic that folks who should know, like Hubert Sumlin (Howling Wolf’s guitar player) and Steady Rollin’ Bob Margolin (who played with Muddy Waters), have sung the band’s praises. True to their live show, the band splits their set on this disc between originals and covers (five and four, respectively). While the originals give them a chance to show off their songwriting ability, the covers give them a chance to show off their musical knowledge. Guitarist Travis Koopman’s urgent “Honey Bee,” which kicks off the disc, gives Nosek an exhaustive workout on harmonica as the rest of the band echoes Koopman’s cries of “Honey bee, honey bee!” The next track, “All the Girls I’ve Loved (Have Moved Off to NYC),” is a chugging blues that allows you to get your breath back—unless you are Nosek, then you have to handle lead vocals and harmonica.
Track three marks our first meeting with the newest member of the Kings, Oscar Wilson. Nosek states that “he was still very new to the professional stage when we rolled the tape the night of this recording.” Perhaps the only clue we are given of this is his hesitance in kicking off Muddy Waters’s “Iodine in My Coffee”: “Travis, er, Joe, will you kick this band off?” His next turn on lead vocals is the humorous “She Wants to Sell My Monkey,” which may or may not be some sort of euphemism. Honestly, I’m not sure what it’s about, but Wilson sells it with conviction. His original “BC Blues” serves as the encore on the night. Perhaps my favorite part of the whole disc is when he beseeches, “Ladies, don’t go nowhere, because I’ve got a song for you,” before his lament about how his “generator won’t generate” and his “gasoline won’t percolate.” Again, he may be talking about his car, or he may be talking about something completely different; that’s how it goes with the blues. The liner notes also mention a studio recording coming out in 2010. If he’s this good already, I can’t wait to hear him as a seasoned member of the Kings. (Note: I-94 Blues released in Madison on March 20.)
The most surprising inclusion is a cover of Lou Reed’s “I’m Waiting for My Man.” Musically it’s the equal of the other songs, but on a disc full of authentic Chicago Blues it sticks out like a sore thumb. The harmonica is a nice improvement on the original, but it lacks the heat and intensity of their Blues throwdowns. When you do something as well the Cash Box Kings, there’s really no need to do anything else.