Like many great blues musicians, Mississippi Fred McDowell has not garnered the attention nor the fame he rightfully deserves. A self-taught guitarist, McDowell was a traditional bluesman who began his career entertaining folks at juke joints and rustic picnics in northern Mississippi. Here, in an intimate 1971 appearance at the Gaslight Cafe in New York City, McDowell used his energy, inspiration and intensity to communicate to his audience what he lived and what he knew best: the down-home Mississippi blues.
Live at the Gaslight Cafe is a two-CD in-concert set featuring McDowell’s roughed-up electric bottleneck guitar and coarsely-textured vocals in a program of powerful original compositions and enduring blues classics. A funky up-tempo version of "Shake ’Em on Down" starts off the performance, prefaced by McDowell’s well-known epithet, "I do not play no rock’n’roll." Then he chuckles, "but this one kinda sound like it."
McDowell’s distinctive approach to rhythm and time is showcased in "Baby Please Don’t Go," where he uses sudden tempo accelerations as a way of building up excitement and creating a dialogue between performer and listener. Written in the ’30s by Big Joe Williams, this number is one of the highlights of the 23-song concert.
McDowell’s vocals are exceptional, and his impressive guitar playing, driving rhythms and dynamic riffs on tunes like "Don’t Mistreat Nobody," "Good Morning Little School Girl" and "White Lightnin’" will put a smile on your face and a swing in your step. "I’m Crazy About You Baby" is a skillfully improvised piece sung with great feeling and passion, and the distant sound of producer Tom Pomposello’s bass guitar gives the song an eerie, compelling quality.
Mississippi Fred McDowell tells stories — tales of love and anguish, of regret and sorrow. Live at the Gaslight, his final recording, is the swan song of an artist who breathed and bled the blues.
— Philip Bernhardt