Give Scissormen’s Ted Drozdowski and Matt Snow a guitar, a drum kit and an audience and they will do something you don’t expect — from summoning the ghosts of the Mississippi Delta and hill country to casting a psychedelic trance to standing on top of your table and using every glass, knife, fork, cell phone and dinner plate to play six-string slide and percussion.
Scissormen’s incomparable energy and playful spirit are captured for the first time in BIG SHOES: Walking and Talking the Blues, a two-disc set featuring acclaimed roots music documentary film maker Robert Mugge’s movie starring the band and a live audio disc recorded during the February 2010 filming at the historic Key Palace Theater in snowy Red Key, Indiana.
The 90-minute feature is a blend of concert film, road movie, blues history and state-of-the-genre report by the director of such classics as Gospel According to Al Green, Saxophone Colossus (starring Sonny Rollins), Deep Blues and New Orleans Musicians in Exile. BIG SHOES: Walking and Talking the Blues debuted at the 2010 Starz Denver Film Festival and has screened aboard the Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise, at the Gasparilla Film Festival in Tampa and at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston.
The BIG SHOES CD is Scissormen’s fifth album. Among the new songs debuted in the disc’s 15 tracks are the movie’s theme song “Big Shoes,” which Scissormen frontman Drozdowski describes as a “blues protest number.” The tune is also a musical journey, starting with basic country blues licks and traveling to a place were the sounds of Africa, the late Junior Kimbrough and Pink Floyd are equally at home. Another new entry is “R.L. Burnside,” a true story of a night Drozdowski spent with the musical mentor who inspired him to found the band 10 years ago, performed as an electric country blues. And there’s “Delta Train,” a ghost story set to a riveting Mississippi stomp.
Both the film and the album feature original Scissormen drummer R.L. Hulsman and were made during a tour that reunited him and Drozdowski. Berklee College of Music graduate Matt Snow joined Scissormen full-time in November 2010, relocating to the band’s Nashville home base to purse his love of Mississippi grooves and to join Drozdowski in forging a shared vision of deeply rooted contemporary American music.
Drozdowski has been on the American blues scene for 30 years. He began writing about the music in the early 1980s, while living in Boston, Massachusetts, and received the Blues Foundation’s Keeping the Blues Alive Award for Journalism in 1998. His work has appeared in Rolling Stone, Guitar World, Musician and dozens of other publications. He has also consulted on film projects including 2000’s “Martin Scorsese Presents: The Blues” PBS-TV series.
All the while he was also an active musician, mostly playing rock and improvised music, notably with the obscure-but-inventive alternative-rock era bands Vision Thing and Devil Gods. Along the way he developed a stunning and unique command of slide guitar playing that straddles the provinces of Elmore James and the late jazz guitarist Sonny Sharrock, another of Drozdowski’s mentors. He toured and made a live album with beat poet and activist John Sinclair, and co-wrote songs with Ronnie Earl that the blues guitar virtuoso cut with Irma Thomas and Kim Wilson. More recently, Drozdowski produced Peter Parcek 3’s 2010 The Mathematics of Love, which received a Blues Music Awards nomination for Best Debut Album.
“I deeply loved blues all that time,” Drozdowski says, “but I believe an artist has to bring something of their own to the table and I just couldn’t find my own voice in trying to play Chicago, Texas or the other prevalent styles. When I started traveling to north Mississippi in the early ’90s and won the friendship of R.L. Burnside, Junior Kimbrough and Jessie Mae Hemphill, slowly a door started to open. As a player, R.L. eventually had to almost shove me through it, but when he did I started to grasp that this was what I was supposed to do with my life.
“What’s wild is that I made my first trip to Junior’s juke joint to hear him and R.L. — who weren’t touring much yet — after seeing Robert Mugge’s film Deep Blues, where their performances blew my mind. So now, being in BIG SHOES: Walking and Talking the Blues brings me full circle. And blows my mind!”
The film also captures what Drozdowski sees as an important part of his and the band’s mission — to reconnect the blues to the present by incorporating contemporary musical elements in Scissormen’s sound and to inform audiences about the music’s historic artists and important roots and ’shoots while entertaining the hell out the broad demographic of fans who’ve seen Scissormen perform anywhere from clubs, coffee shops and theaters to the stages of the Bonnaroo, Cognac Blues Passions and Memphis in May music festivals.
“Like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Son House, Junior, R.L., Jessie Mae and all the other artists who inspire me, I believe in keeping my feet planted firmly in tradition and keeping my eyes on the future,” Drozdowski says. “Like they believed, and like I sing in ‘Big Shoes,’ ‘the blues ain’t dipped in amber.’ It’s a vital, contemporary art form brimming with power, passion and beauty.”