In troubled times, the familiar brings us comfort.
One of the finest bluesmen we know, Watermelon Slim provides relief from the disquiet surrounding us today. Traveling Man is a two-album set of solo performances, just Slim, his resonator steel guitar, and a bit of harmonica.
It is brilliant.
For those familiar with Bill Homans III, this live collection has been long desired, a stripped-down presentation of his blues, and complementary to his Up Close and Personal set of many years ago. For the uninitiated, it is past time to lean in for a listen.
Acoustic blues never goes out of style (to borrow from one of Slim’s signature songs, “Truck Driving Songs,” included here) and when presented by an artist as passionate for his music as is Watermelon Slim, it also grows and thrives. Such is the case with Traveling Man, eighteen tracks of living blues.
Most of the songs are familiar having appeared on a selection of Watermelon Slim’s previous recordings including with the Workers and on the Northern Blues label. “Devil’s Cadillac,” “Archetypal Blues,” “Frisco Line,” and “Jimmy Bell” are well-representative of Slim’s catalogue, and are presented sounding as fresh and natural as when first heard: new takes on old tales.
Once when asked to describe Watermelon Slim to an interested reader, I said, “He is the Leonard Cohen of the blues.” I’m still not sure what I meant, but a week later I was told, “Man, you nailed it with that description.” Blind squirrel and nuts, me thinks.
“The Last Blues” proves that while life is fragile, being too old is indeed something to be embraced. At turns vulnerable (“Into the Sunset” and “300 Miles”) and unrepentant (“Holler #4”, “Let It Be in Memphis,” and “Devil’s Cadillac”), these live recordings are clean and unvarnished, as honest and genuine as the man who is captured here exposing his soul and music. The extended medley of “Smokestack Lightning”/”Two Trains Running” can’t be heard often enough.
Less familiar numbers are also included. The first, “Northern Blues” is the strongest, but perhaps I am biased staring out the window at snow covering the yard this late March early morning.
“John Henry” and “Oklahoma Blues”—one traditional, the other one of the oldest originals within the set—together reveal Slim’s power as a storyteller of the blues. The listener becomes invested in the narration, buoyed by Slim’s talking blues and impassioned instrumental colouring. “Dark Genius” captures Slim’s thoughts about world leaders cut down too soon.
Recorded at two Oklahoma gigs a few years back, Traveling Man is a perfect introduction to Watermelon Slim, a blues master.