Roadhouse Album Review: Cash Box Kings check in with the classic sounds of “Oscar’s Motel”

Cash Box Kings — “Oscar’s Motel” — Alligator Records

You want some tough, old-school-feel Chicago-style blues, but with a contemporary vibe?

Then you should check out the latest album from the Cash Box Kings, featuring the massive voice of Oscar Wilson, and the massive talents of everyone else involved.

Harp man, vocalist, songwriter and band founder Joe Nosek has brought together a razor-sharp ensemble of Wilson on lead vocals, Billy Flynn on lead and baritone guitar, Kenny “Beedy Eyes” Smith on drums, John W. Lauler on upright and electric bass, and Lee Kanehira on piano and organ. There is also a handful of special guests who add just the right amount of icing on the blues cake.

Special guests include vocalists Deitra Farr, Cameron Webb, and John Nemeth, guitarists Shoji Naito, Andrew Diehl, Xavier Lynn, and Jon McDonald, drummer Derek Hendrickson, and The C-Note Horns.

Most of the music on their eleventh album is original, with Wilson and Nosek sharing the writing and creating new blues in the same tough spirit as their spiritual predecessors. They also add rugged covers of a pair of blues chestnuts.

The session kicks off with the title track (imagine that, the title track comes first!), featuring Wilson’s gritty vocals, a little reminiscent of Howlin’ Wolf, in front of Nosek’s wicked harp, all shuffling in classic blues harmony. Next, “Down on the South Side” creates an image of a Chicago filled with the characters of the blues, plus one of the special guests, the C-Note horns, adding their own vivid color.

“Please Have Mercy” downshifts the mood, with a mournful harp intro fueling Wilson’s slow-burning vocal turn on the Muddy Waters song. “I Can’t Stand You” is a light-hearted pairing of the heavy-duty voices of Wilson and guest vocalist Deitra Farr. “Hot Little Mess” is pure Nosek, from the lyrics to the harp to the vocals.

The soulful Cameron Webb shares the vocals on the history lesson in “Nobody Called It the Blues,” and then Wilson relives the urgent driving rhythms of “Pontiac Blues,” the remaining cover track on the album (a footnote about the original below). “Trying So Hard” is another scorching slow blues, fueled by Nosek’s harp and Wilson’s potent pipes, with a stinging guitar adding fuel to the fire. “She Dropped The Axe On Me” is another solo Nosek effort. John Németh adds his considerable vocal chops and wry sensibilities to the envious “I Want What Chaz Has.”

The closer is a surprisingly out-of-season “Ride Santa Ride,” but a rocking good way to giftwrap the package.

“Oscar’s Motel” is the latest in a long run of outstanding music from the Cash Box Kings, who continue to create new music that remains faithful to its roots in style and substance. And it sounds great, too.

A “Pontiac Blues” footnote and a blues pet peeve: This song is credited here to “Williamson,” presumably meaning the man who wrote and recorded it, usually known as Sonny Boy Williamson II, but who was actually Alex or Aleck “Rice” Miller (or Ford, his mother’s name). In the early 1940s, a radio sponsor began referring to Miller as Sonny Boy Williamson to take advantage of the fame of the already well-known blues harpist, John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williamson, and the name stuck. For a long while, Miller was referred to as Sonny Boy Williamson II, but now even that small distinction seems to have become less used.

There’s no question that Miller had an extraordinary career as an artist. His talent was immense.

But so did John Lee Williamson, and I think it’s important that the blues record remembers that.

Here’s the album’s title track:

Track List:

1 Oscar’s Motel 2:46 (Wilson/Nosek, Eyeball Music, BMI)
2 Down On The South Side 3:41 (Nosek/Wilson, Eyeball Music, BMI)
3 Please Have Mercy 4:00 (Morganfield, Watertoons Music, BMI)
4 I Can’t Stand You 4:20 (Nosek/Wilson/Farr, Eyeball Music, BMI)
5 Hot Little Mess 3:29 (Nosek, Eyeball Music, BMI)
6 Nobody Called It The Blues 3:33 (Abrahamson/Procell/Nosek/Wilson, Throw Your Voice Music, Saw Rite Music, Eyeball Music, BMI)
7 Pontiac Blues 1:57 (Williamson, Arc Music, BMI)
8 Trying So Hard 5:17 (Flynn, Easy Baby Music, BMI)
9 She Dropped The Axe On Me 3:43 (Nosek, Eyeball Music, BMI)
10 I Want What Chaz Has 3:43 (Nosek/Wilson/Flynn, Eyeball Music, BMI)
11 Ride Santa Ride 3:15 (Nosek/Nosek/Wilson, Eyeball Music, BMI)

The Cash Box Kings are:

Joe Nosek: Harmonica, Vocals (5,9), Acoustic Guitar (9)
Oscar Wilson: Vocals
Billy Flynn: Lead Guitar, Baritone Guitar (5)
Kenny “Beedy Eyes” Smith: Drums (1,4,7,8)
John W. Lauler: Upright and Electric Bass
Lee Kanehira: Piano, Organ

With Special Guests:

Deitra Farr: Vocals (4)
John Nemeth: Vocals (10)
Shoji Naito: Rhythm Guitar (1,4,7,8), Kick Drum (3)
Andrew Diehl: Rhythm Guitar (5,6,9,10,11)
Derek Hendrickson: Drums (5,9,10,11)
Alex Hall: Drums (2,6)
Cameron Webb: Vocals (6)
Xavier Lynn: Rhythm Guitar (2)
Jon McDonald: Guitar (3)

The C-Note Horns:
Al Falaschi: Tenor and Baritone Saxophones (2,5)
Jim Doherty: Trumpet (2)

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