Blues is not a subtle music, and Koko Taylor has consistently championed an in-your-face, both-barrels-blazing approach to her material since hitting the charts 35 years ago with "Wang Dang Doodle," a Willie Dixon song Howlin’ Wolf had recorded under duress five years earlier. (He told Dixon it was "too old-timey … sound like some levee camp number.") And, although Taylor had misgivings about it, "Wang Dang Doodle" has become her signature song.
Here, however, instead of rehashing familiar songs, Taylor and her band — plus special guests B.B. King, Jimmie Johnson, Keb’ Mo’ and Kenny Wayne Shepherd — breath new life into Buddy Johnson’s "Hittin’ on Me" and the Ray Charles/Percy Mayfield classic "On the Other Hand," in addition to essaying a batch of new songs, including four by Taylor herself.
Most of the songs have a cautionary tale to tell along the lines of "Save Your Breath," where she warns her straying man that, while she was the first to take him in, she’ll be the first to throw him out. On her own "Keep Your Booty Out of My Bed" she prays for help in avoiding a womanizer she’s attracted to, then shames him with "even a dog gets tired, I don’t care if it’s only a mutt; I’ve searched around all over town while you’ve been sleeping with every two-bit slut." Like I said: not subtle. And her raspy growl suits such messages perfectly: There’s not gonna be any sugar for you, Jim, unless you straighten up!
The guests? This is nothing new to her — she’s had them onboard since 1975. B.B. joins her for a raucous "Blues Hotel," where they’re going to "paaarty." Jimmie Johnson’s considerable keyboard talent impresses on several songs, especially the slow, superb "On the Other Hand." Keb’ Mo’ duets magnificently with Taylor on her down-home "(I’m in Love With) The Man Next Door," and Shepherd goes over the edge on the one throwaway item, Melissa Etheridge’s "Bring Me Some Water." Her band? Longtime guitarist Criss Johnson does his usual bang-up job, pushing things right up to the edge.
Yes, the Queen of the Blues is back! After a seven-year absence from the studio, a lot of blues royalty wannabes have appeared. Here, Taylor raises the bar a few notches higher.
— Miles Jordan