John Oates & Fishman

We had the pleasure of catching John Oates at Showcase Live in Foxboro, MA the same week his new CD Mississippi Mile was released. John had the support of a full band and played acoustic guitar throughout most of the show (relying on his Matrix Infinity and Aura Spectrum DI).

Mississippi Mile might seem like a surprising title for an album that promises to take John Oates back to his deepest influences. Oates is paying homage to the influence of the great blues, folk, and early rock musicians at the same time as younger artists are paying tribute to the Hall and Oates legacy. Last year, the acclaimed duo the Bird and the Bee even did a CD titled Interpreting the Masters Volume 1: A Tribute to Daryl Hall and John Oates, in which they put a less melismatic, more electro-pop spin on eight classics. Oates was delighted by the disc—Greg Kurstin's arrangements are faithful yet unique and its wonderful to hear A female singer, Inara George, give a feminine perspective to the well known lyrics. There have been campier homages, too, and Oates enjoys it all, even if he feels slightly strange about being written into the history books quite this soon.

There’s a common thread in this collection of music that otherwise maybe you wouldn’t be able to put your finger on,” Oates says, “and that common thread is that it all emanates from this one geographical place. As I assembled these songs, whether it was a Curtis Mayfield song or a Chuck Berry or Mississippi John Hurt or anything in-between, the roots of all this music are in the Mississippi Delta. It’s the birthplace of American pop music. And rock & roll really started there before it moved through the country up into the urban centers of Chicago, Detroit and Philadelphia and morphed through the experiences of the people who lived there.”

If that makes the album sound like a history lesson—and it is, in some sense—rest assured that Mississippi Mile is all about primal, gut-bucket grit and emotion, not mere musical edutainment. All but two of the songs are covers, but even if you’re enough of an R&B/folk/blues purist to recognize most of the titles, you won’t be able to predict exactly where Oates will take them. Consider the collection’s best-known song, which veers off in a far slyer and slinkier direction than the Elvis Presley version that made it a classic. Says Oates, “A lot of people are listening to it and they don’t even know what it is till they hear me sing ‘I’m all shook up,’ and then they go ‘Wow, that’s a weird, unique take on that song!’” (…Speaking of being “a little mixed up but feelin’ fine.”)

“I’m happy that a younger generation is still rediscovering it what Daryl and I have done—and also that the music has held up,” he says. “What I’m proud of most of all is that these songs are still resonating and people still care about them enough to re-record them. Even the tongue-in-cheek takes on us, the ‘yacht-rock’ stuff, none of it seems to be done in a mean-spirited way. Even the wacky stuff is done with a kind of hip reverence, in a way. I think some of the tributes focus on the ‘80s and the MTV video generation and the images that stuck in people’s minds—which are completely separate from the music. So that’s one thing. But the songs have held up. And you have younger artists like the Killers and Gym Class Heroes who tell their fans how important our music was so them, and their whole fan base basically has really turned on to us. It’s been a cool thing to have happen later in our career, and it keeps our music alive and allows us to go forward and do new and exciting things.”

Or old and exciting things, in the case of Mississippi Mile, which goes a long way toward re-illuminating 20th century music’s missing links and proving that there’s no expiration date on classicism. We can’t all literally get back to the region that Oates calls the birthplace of most popular music as we know it, but this veritable Mississippi Delta Airlines flight is the next best thing to being there.

For more information and to listen to tracks from the CD, go to: http://www.johnoates.com