James Cotton is a bonafide harp legend and blues icon and has nothing left to prove at this stage is his career. That can be a blessing when it frees and invigorates a titanic talent to pursue their vision with no fear or boundaries. It can also be a curse as it his on Cotton Mouth Man -- the follow-up to his 2009 album Giant -- where it's clear finding ways to keep the man and his music vital without becoming repetitive has become increasingly difficult.
Grammy-winning producer Tom Hambridge has assembled an army of stars to perform alongside Cotton. Hambridge has also teamed with some of his Nashville buddies to write new material rather than asking Cotton to cover standards he played a million times in his glory days. All the king's horses and all the king's men keep this from being a tedious bore but they can't put the beloved Superharp back on the throne, either.
Cotton was never a classic singer and old age and declining health have robbed him of whatever vocal power he once possessed, making it necessary to recruit the likes of Gregg Allman, Warren Haynes, Keb' Mo', Ruthie Foster, Joe Bonamassa, Chuck Leavell, and Colin Linden to lend a hand. Unfortunately, they don't so much lend a hand as steal the show because while Cotton still has some wind, his harmonica doesn't blow with the same raw power it used to and he just can't hold center stage. His playing is tight and in tune but even at its best often feels decorative rather than primary.
You have to wonder if Hambridge and the braintrust behind this album knew that because much of the material exists to remind us how great Cotton was. It's one thing to write songs that tell a man's story but some of these feel more like Wikipedia entries than actual songs.
If it sounds like I'm mercilessly panning this, please know I'm taking no particular joy in my disappointment. The record is far from terrible. There are good moments and the guest performers do some fine work, particularly Allman on "Midnight Train" and Linden on "Bonnie Blue."
The problem is Cotton Mouth Man recalls James Cotton's past glory but can't hold a candle to the body of work that made him legend. That's unrealistic to expect yet it's nearly impossible to hear this without missing what's gone more than enjoying what's left as presented here.