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Cabbie Laments

Mem Shannon
Mr. Blues: New Orleans guitarist Mem Shannon sings the woes of the working class.

Mem Shannon sings the front-seat blues

By Nicky Baxter

THREE REASONS why Mem Shannon's 2nd Blues Album (Hannibal) warrants a fair hearing. First, Shannon's an ex-cabbie with a street-corner poet's eye for detail. Second, he's a relatively young Louisiana bluesman, and there just aren't enough of them on record. Third, not only is he an excellent blues guitarist, he's a versatile musician whose playing incorporates elements of jazz, folk, funk and more.

The new album doesn't possess quite the element of surprise of Shannon's 1995 debut, A Cab Driver's Blues, but it represents a step forward for the 37-year-old singer, songwriter and guitarist. If on Cab Driver Shannon gave us a sneak preview of his skills as a writer and guitarist, on his new disc he demonstrates the evolution of those skills.

Considering the 15 years he spent on the road swapping stories with his back-seat passengers, it's no surprise that Shannon's tunes cover so much ground. He's had more than an earful of hot-shot lawyers and well-to-do Johns, yet he's savvy enough to know that the powerful are often corrupt. He's a working stiff, scrambling to make a living. It is Shannon's plain-spoken compassion for the average Joe that compels us to sit up and listen.

While "Wrong People in Charge," the album's opener, takes a swipe at New Orleans' notoriously crooked politicians, it could very well apply anywhere. Set to a coolly funky backbeat, Shannon's unprepossessing baritone wraps itself around lyrics enumerating common grievances: the cost of living, the automation of the work-force, the profusion of shoddy products. Shannon's guitar-picking is appropriately biting, riding the groove here, ripping off stinging fills there. His solo is the very model of economy and taste. Though more than capable of playing flashy guitar, Shannon opts for substance over speed.

"One Thin Dime" and "Down Broke" are both sharply sketched observations of blue-collar life. "Dime" boasts some achingly gorgeous electric and acoustic guitar matched with the singer's heavyhearted recitation; Shannon's midsection solo soars and swoops with grace. As much folk as blues, this is an extraordinarily moving portrait of homelessness in the Big Easy: "Just like the time a little boy came up to me / With big ol' sad watery eyes he said / He said, Mister please won't you give me a quarter / Me and my mama and my little brother / Sleep under the bridge / And it's so scary." By the end, it's not just some stranger begging for spare change but his own brother--a sign of the times.

"Down Broke" coasts along on a Latin-tinged jazz groove. Based on this song alone, it is apparent that Shannon could easily fit in with big-name jazzmen if he so chose. As for the lyrics, you can't get more blue-collar than a fellow who spends almost as much time underneath his beat-up jalopy as he does driving it.

Still, the late-blooming bluesman is not all bad news. The singer understands there's a time to weep and a time to smile. On "Say That Then (The Parlez-Vous Francais Song)," he takes a lighthearted look at the universal art of girl-meets-boy in clubland. Backed by a buoyant Stevie Wonder-ish clavichord and tricky bayou beat, Shannon plays the reticent wallflower ("Well I was trying to say something / But the words just wouldn't come out / Even I couldn't tell what I was talking about") to an assertive woman ("She said if you want to be with me / You're gonna have to do a lot better than that"). So much for the myth of the bold soul brother.

Even proletarian plaints such as "Down Broke" and "Mr. Blues" offer some wry humor with their bitters. Mem Shannon's indefatigable spirit triumphs over the problems of society. And so what if, in the real world, that doesn't always happen?

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From the Sept. 11-17, 1997 issue of Metro.

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