Album Review: Martin Lang & Rusty Zinn – Mr. Blues, Mr. Blues

Martin Lang has been releasing albums for two decades on his own Random Chance label. An amplified blues harp player, he’s immersed in the Chicago blues tradition. He has worked with a number of the city’s respected players; Lang first appeared on record as part of the 2002 album Harmonica Blues Orgy, alongside Tail Dragger Jones. He’s also worked with fellow harp player Little Arthur Duncan, Willie Buck, guitarist/bandleader John Primer and other fine blues artists.

Lang’s 2017 release Ain’t No Notion found him teaming up with Oakland singer-guitarist Rusty Zinn. Zinn has been releasing records since the mid ‘90s; his debut Sittin’ & Waitin’ featured Kim Wilson as a co-billed artist. Nominally a blues guitarist, on some of his releases Zinn seamlessly integrates reggae textures into his music. So between them, the two musicians can boast a half century of blues.

The two men take turns at lead vocals on Mr. Blues, Mr. Blues, and the album features a few instrumental numbers as well. The record opens with “W-A-S-T-E-D,” a straightforward blues number reminiscent of the kind of blues-once-removed that the Yardbirds did in their early days, albeit without the British accents. Both Lang and Zinn take turns at extended soloing, and their work is top-notch.

The album’s title track has more authenticity, with Lang’s soulful lead vocal out in front of a laid back groove. An instrumental, “Mickey” is one of the record’s highlights. Featuring a guest turn from the always-impressive pianist Johnny Iguana, that tune has a loping, uptempo character that pulls away from the pack. Even in its compact three-minute run time, the song gives plenty of pace for soloing, and the band feels spirited and engaged.

Iguana is even more thrilling on “You Gotta Stop This Mess,” with a trilling bar room piano intro that sets the pace. Dick Shurman’s production choices here are note-perfect, too; the recording sounds like a slightly higher fidelity version of 1940s blues; it may well be the best track on the album. Zinn’s lead vocal is convincing stuff, too.

Mr. Blues, Mr. Blues gets better as it goes along. And with 14 tracks, there’s plenty of opportunity to stretch out in a variety of directions. “Don’t You Want a Man Like Me” is a fetching shuffle. The instrumental “Jet Stream” is a delight, and showcases Lang’s freewheeling command of the harp along with some wiry guitar work from Zinn. And “Figure Head” shows that once the band is warmed up, they can really cook, effortlessly shifting tempo and holding it together in style.

It takes some chutzpah to name an album Mr. Blues, Mr. Blues, but Lang and Zinn both have the background to make a credible bid for the appellation. And on their collaborative project, the duo delivers on the promise implicit in the title.