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Getting Wise to Guitar Shorty

[whitespace] New 'Roll Over, Baby' album shows off blues skills of veteran Guitar Shorty

By Nicky Baxter

GUITAR SHORTY has been known to do literal somersaults while playing extraordinary guitar in performance, leaving audiences slack-jawed with amazement. Indeed, Shorty may have passed on some of his pyrotechnics to his late stepbrother, Jimi Hendrix. However, although the 59-year-old Texan has been critically praised, he remains on the periphery of blues superstardom. Ironically, his wild stage stunts may have something to do with his lack of recognition, perhaps overshadowing his achievements on record.

Like Hendrix, Shorty had to cross the Atlantic to kick-start his career properly. My Way or the Freeway (1951) won the prestigious W.C. Handy Award, while Get Wise to Yourself and Topsy Turvy are both full of rock-'em, sock-'em R&B and low-down city blues.

His latest album, Roll Over, Baby (Black Top), finds the guitarist building on previous successes. The album flaunts Shorty's feisty, tough-as-nails playing, gruff vocals and solid songwriting.

Shorty, a master of myriad blues-related stylings, romps through Louisiana swamp rock, Texas shuffles and bare-knuckled blues. The title track is built from the ground up with rollicking New Orleans piano, a taut bass figure and some snappy drumming. Slicing through the Big Easy boogaloo are raunchy lyrics and terse Albert Collins-flavored guitar fills. Shorty's own compositions are pithy unadorned affairs, addressing tried-and-true blues fodder: women, life on the road and tough times.

On the B.B. King-like "You're a Trouble-Maker," Shorty scolds his hard-to-handle, pistol-packing woman. Backed by churchy organ and a sly bass line, Shorty itemizes his mate's wayward behavior with mounting querulousness.

His wounded howl and thick-toned guitar combine to drive his point home: "I took you to a funeral/to respect the dead/When the preacher called you down/You threw your purse upside his head." Shorty's solo, on the other hand, is a model of controlled fury, alternately whining and crackling with intensity.

On "Hard Time Woman" Shorty reveals his romantic side; the song lopes along with almost poetic grace. Strangely, it's not hard to envision this one as a Burning Spear number; the reggae rhythm is implied in song's steadfast pulse and understated horn arrangements.

If most of the cuts on Roll Over, Baby are characterized by a kind of restrained frenzy, "Hey, Joe," the album's closer, is a no-holds-barred blazer. For decades, this song has been associated with Hendrix who, though he didn't pen it, refashioned the tune in his own image.

Guitar Shorty--who claims to have influenced Hendrix--not only resurrects this perennial crowd-pleaser, but turns it into a real performance piece. It's easy to visualize Shorty doing his wild thing onstage with "Joe," rolling and reeling while simultaneously tearing off licks that simulate sky-streaking dive bombers.

This version is crammed with fuzz-toned harmonics, screeching wah-wah pedal passages and high-pitched squealing feedback only occasionally interrupted by the song's lyric, which concerns betrayal and revenge.

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Web extra to the October 8-14, 1998 issue of Metro.

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