By: Bill Kolter - Oct 2002|
President, Chaindawg Records, Inc.
For The Blues Site 
Texas may have produced more great unsung blues guitarists than any state in the nation. Mason Ruffner and Chris Duarte come immediately to mind as virtuosos who have labored in relative obscurity for years. Maybe it's the stiff competition that makes it so hard to break out of the Lone Star State. Had David Bowie and Jackson Browne not championed Stevie Ray Vaughan, he might never have transcended the Austin blues scene. It appears that, in order to break out from the blues pack these days, an artist must either be a teenage wunderkind or have the help of an industry insider to grease the wheels.
If a guitarist was ever worthy of such greasing, it's Houston's Mark May, the best guitarist you've never heard of, and arguably the most versatile talent working the blues today. He lets fly on his third album, "Doll Maker," the follow-up to 1997's brilliant "Telephone Road." Don't think Mark's been idle during the interval; he spent two productive years touring as Dickey Betts's guitarist.
Mark's gratitude to Betts is forthrightly on display here. Throughout, he demonstrates his mastery of Allmans-style harmonically-synchronized guitar work The instrumental "Place your Betts" is an intriguing tribute, borrowing thematically from the Allman Brothers' "Jessica." May combines Betts' jazz-tinged southern melodies with distorted rock-based asides to create a flowing pastiche. Although Betts sits in on this CD, he doesn't play on this song. That's all Mark you're hearing.
Carlos Santana gets a nod, too, on "Gangsta Blues,." a Latino-flavored story about the perils of street gangs. May's vocals provide great feeling to the story of a man admonishing his brother to quit gang-banging. It's a beautifully constructed song, with guitars lavishly layered to create a moody atmosphere that kicks into a conga-fueled bossa nova. This song demonstrates May's confident command of the Santana style. If he ever figures out how to pull this one off during in a live show, audiences will be left stunned.
Mark is clearly influenced by the late Albert Collins, whom he first paid tribute to on "Hail to the Iceman," from his first CD, "Call on the Blues" (Icehouse Records, 1995). Collins is acknowledged on "Doll Maker" through two covers, "Black Cat Bone" and "I Ain't Drunk." On "Bone," Mark creates a more flowing rhythm than that of Collins, Copeland, and Cray on their version from "Showdown" (Alligator, 1985). Dickey Betts takes the first solo, showcasing a round, Les Paul-type distortion. Mark kicks in with a cleaner vintage tube sound, then switching to a Collins-esque sting, and finally an intense wah-wah romp.
"I Ain't Drunk" demonstrates Mark's ability to match Collins lick for lick, but the inclusion of this song is unnecessary, and is my only major gripe with the album. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this rendition…it's completely faithful to Collins' version on his "Cold Snap" album, and as such, doesn't offer anything new. Bassist Dan Cooper has a fine voice, and does a credible job, but he's not Albert Collins.
But Mark is much more than just a conglomeration of his influences, as he amply shows on "Doll Maker's" nine original numbers and three covers. All show great feeling, tight arrangements, interesting transitions and dynamics, expressive guitar virtuosity, and tonal variety.
The title cut, "Doll Maker," is a swampy slide-and-wah number with a driving backbeat that perfectly complements the song's story of a voodoo witch. As with the rest of the album, Mark breaks out of convention with inventive bridges that allow him to stretch out on guitar.
"I'm a Gambler" is straight Texas blues, with enough key changes to keep it interesting. The wah-wah pedal comes off a bit too heavily for my taste; I much prefer the stinging intensity Mark achieves without all the mush getting in the way.
"Blue Monday", the third song covered, is exactly what you would expect, a slow blues tune backed by Eric Demmer's greasy horns. Mark wails plaintively about sleepwalking through a stifling existence. Nothing groundbreaking here, but flawlessly executed and loaded with feeling.
"Busta Blues" is a driving, shuffle with a kicking pentatonic thematic lick and fat horn arrangement. The able support complements Mark's funky rhythm and trademark, chunky pull-off/hammer-on leads.
"You Ain't All That" is a Chicago-derived shuffle nicely backed by Skip Nallia on piano and B3 organ. At 9:24, it's the longest song on the album. Mark indulges in some extended soloing that shows off his broad blues vocabulary and tasteful restraint. A couple of jangly interludes help build the intensity from one phrase to the next. Dickey Betts contributes a guitar solo.
"Gone Too Long" takes a "Crosscut Saw" beat, and layers rich country/jazz guitar harmonics with nice boogie piano work from Nallia.
Overall this is a coherent work of inventive blues-rock by one of the best guitarists in the business. I've seen the man live, both with his road band, the Agitators, and with Dickey Betts. He's smooth as silk and intense as hell. When he cuts heads with the Agitators' second guitarist, Kirk McKim, you will be left breathless. Together, they comprise the strongest one-two punch in the blues world. "Doll Maker" displays Mark's continuing maturity as a writer, singer, and guitarist. If he can ever break out of Houston, blues fans around the world will be in for a real treat. It's only a matter of time, and perhaps, some strategically-placed grease from the right mechanic. You listening, Dickey?