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Steve Ferguson & the Midwest Creole Ensemble
 Mama U-Seapa, Schoolkids' Records CD SKR 1520, 1995 (55:27)

 Hot mambo from NRBQ veteran

It's hard to restrain myself as I write about this record. Steve Ferguson certainly didn't restrain himself, and neither did the Midwest Creole Ensemble. They just hung it out in the wind and made a great record. Period. Mama U-Seapa is a stellar slice of American music, with a capital A, in the biggest and best sense of the word. With a little help from some famous and not so famous folks, Ferguson has cooked up a gem.

The original guitarist in NRBQ, Ferguson left the band in the mid-'70s and dropped out of sight for twenty-odd years. Rumor has it he never fell out of favor in Louisville, Kentucky where he remains a cherished local treasure. He resurfaced for general consumption in 1994, turning in guitar and songwriting duties on Chuck Berry piano-man Johnnie Johnson's comeback album, Johnnie B. Bad. He followed that with his own effort on Schoolkids' Records, Jack Salmon and Derby Sauce, and now gives us Mama U-Seapa, a sizzling gumbo of blues, rhythm-and-blues, and real rock-and-roll, all served up with plenty of New Orleans spice.

Both the liner notes and the music paint a picture of another place in another time. Ferguson has built a mythology around Mama U-Seapa, the mystical proprietress of a riverside cafe, a "mecca of easy virtue". The atmosphere is heavy with the smells of barbecue and fried jack salmon, and thick with intrigue. Innocents cross paths with the world weary. Lonely men seek temporary comfort. The bourbon flows freely as a ragtag bunch punches out pig Latin blues in exchange for a hot meal. Meantime, the Creole princess's black magic hangs in the air, keeping the Upper Mississippi crossroads safe for all peaceful comers.

It'd be easy to dismiss Mama U-Seapa as fantasy, but there's no denying that someone or something like her brought life to the music on this record. The richness and flavor of the tunes were inspired by a powerful force, something organic, vivid and wonderful. Or maybe it's the other way around. Either way, the finished concoction will leave you as woozy and intoxicated as if you'd been there yourself.

Unfortunately, you're unlikely to ever hear any of this record on the radio, unless you spend your time skulking around the extreme left-hand end of the dial. Even then, you're likely to miss it. You'd be hard pressed to squeeze Ferguson into any record label genre that shows up on the charts. Comparisons to Dr. John, Professor Longhair and other old-time New Orleans folks wouldn't be out of line, but when's the last time you heard any of that stuff on the radio?

On the other hand, the Midwest Creole Ensemble is said to put on legendary live shows. At Ypsilanti, Michigan's Frog Island Festival last year, they reportedly left headliners Los Lobos (no slouches themselves) slack-jawed in awe. If the live playing approaches what they captured in the studio, I believe every word of it. There are a ton of great players on the record, not even counting the famous guys (NRBQ hands Adams, Spampinato and Ardolino, and Johnnie Johnson). All turn in mouth-watering piano, organ, horn, accordion and vocal parts. The backing tracks would be plenty tasty even without Ferguson's slippery flatpicking and greasy vocals. It takes musicianship like this to do justice to Ferguson's songwriting. From the achingly sweet, "You Hung The Moon" to the turbocharged Bo Diddley beat of "Pig Latin Love Song", the tunes are savory, simple and clean, familiar but fresh.

If it's been a while since you've been to a hootenanny, a fish fry and a Saturday night social all rolled into one, you owe it to yourself to have a listen to this record. It might be another twenty years before you get your next chance. --  Jason Staczek

 Glenn Brooks says... Lordamighty, yow! The best album of its kind I've heard all year. Problem is, as Jason notes, what kind is it? Your local commercial radio station doesn't even know music like this exists. Their loss, but don't you miss it!

We also ramble about Steve Ferguson in a Jam Session.

production notes & song titles

Steve Ferguson, guitar, vocals; Terry Adams, piano; Joey Spampinato, bass; Johnnie Johnson, piano; Tom Ardolino, drums; The Midwest Creole Horns; The Midwest Creole Singers; and many others.

Produced by Steve Ferguson and Howie Gano (with contributions by Terry Adams, Michael Lipton and Rick Mattingly), engineered and mixed by Howie Gano, mastered by Joe Gastwirt.

Fight Like You Talk | Shake & Bake | Hoo Doo Lovin' | Right String Baby, Wrong Yo-Yo | Hey Little Brother | Cops & Robbers | Coo Cha | Lyin' Cheatin' Blues | You Hung The Moon | Pig Latin Love Song | Jungle Love

of related interest

Steve Ferguson
 Jack Salmon and Derby Sauce, Schoolkids Records CD SKR 1504, 1993

Johnnie Johnson
 Johnnie B. Bad, Elektra Nonesuch CD 61149, 1991 (44:50)

 Stay With We: The Best of NRBQ, Sony Legacy CD 52432
Contains previously unreleased Ferguson tracks.

Copyright © 1996 Peppercorn Press. All rights reserved.