Gator and Mudcat – Back in the Game (2013)

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From its band name –– which sounds like a something off the front porch of a shotgun shack — to its muscular, harp-driven opening track, you’d be forgiven for assuming Gator and Mudcat’s Back in the Game was just another blues-rocking project.

After all, Michael “Mudcat” Reames and Wayne “Gator” Folse open this thing with a squalling menace on “Song Birds Cry,” blending Chess Records’ mid-century urbanity with a sinewy country attitude. Reames, who also sings lead and plays acoustic, adds a chugging harmonica before Folse (who also sings lead) takes a scalding turn on lead guitar. That is likely to spark a series of high-flying hypotheses, but over the next 11 songs, all of them end up in pieces on the ground. But, in fact, the album only gets more and more interesting — until Back in the Game eventually reveals itself as anything but another straight-ahead blues offering.

Take “Appleton,” which reanimates the jazz-inflected influences that always added so much intrigue to the work of Stevie Ray Vaughan — with whom Reames played in the band Liberation. Then there’s “Buy Now Pay Later,” a song that stirs in this grease-popping funk straight out of the classic Meters recipe book. Certainly, songs like “Dreamin’” allow the band, which also includes bassist Greg Varhaug and keyboardist Dennis “Doc” Williams, to settle into a reminiscent cadence. And “Coins and Lace” slows things down to a devastating and downtrodden whisper, connecting Back in the Game with every late-night lament from soul-blues belter Little Milton.

Yet, Back in the Game never sounds rote or overly retro – or, at times, anything at all like the blues. It’s always on the move.

For instance, “How Times Have Changed” (a winking admission about the way our hopes and dreams evolve, with additional keyboard work by Dan “Doc” DeVille) arrives as a rough and randy update of the old rockabilly template. It’s part country and western, part down-home soul, and ultimately timeless. Then there’s “Window Pain,” which offers a series of opportunities for stinging comments from Folse, who himself has toured with everyone from the Coasters to Allen Fontenot and the Country Cajuns. The tune eventually reveals itself not as a blues at all, but something much closer to 1960s-era psychedelic rock.

“I’m Not Crazy” opens with a spooky strum, telegraphing this midnight-black despair, before settling into a beaten-but-not-broken, Southern rock-inspired narrative. There’s a distinct Muscle Shoals vibe, from its loping rhythm to its garrulous, kudzu-covered guitar asides. Meanwhile, “Forever” is a delightful swamp pop throwback — in the tradition of John Fred and G.G. Shinn, among others. Both Gator and Mudcat have connections back to New Orleans, and that experience simply becomes another thread in their endlessly enjoyable tapestry of sound.

They aren’t done stirring the pot, either. “Mother Earth,” featuring additional vocals by Bobbi Walker, powerfully recalls the laid-back reggae of 1970s-era Eric Clapton, but with an updated concept outlining very modern environmental concerns. Finally, there’s the Elton John-ish “Too Late,” which finds Jannsen Lohmeyer sitting in on keys for a gorgeous interlude that may provide this album’s biggest surprise – and there are many. With a raw and emotional lyric, the tune eventually moves toward an anthematic conclusion – giving Gator and Mudcat’s incredibly varied album a brave, deeply honest and in many ways utterly satisfying ending.

Back in the Game was co-produced by Reames, Folse and drummer David Williams (who has worked with Hall and Oates, Patti LaBelle and the O’Jays, among others) at the Vault Recording Studios in Houston, Texas. Additional drums were handled by Keith York.

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Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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