Though a proud son of the Lone Star state that has produced an extraordinary number of blazing guitar slingers, Rocky Jackson goes to the heart of the blues where the seductive groove and emotional expression meet like “the Southern crossing the dog.” On his new album, Testify!, he digs into the deep mojo of the southwest as well as Chicago and the Delta, and the result is a rare treat for the body and soul. Of course, “T” for Texas also stands for “tone” and Jackson has it pouring out of his guitar like boiling molasses.
Ernest W. “Rocky” Jackson III was born May 29, 1947 in Austin, Texas. Completely self-taught, he started playing bottleneck and lap steel in the sixties after seeing Hound Dog Taylor perform. Surprisingly, a move to LA in the seventies allowed him the chance to play more straight-ahead blues on the active Southern California scene. From 1980-88 he was a member of the Magic Blues Band that backed many blues luminaries, including George “Harmonica” Smith, Paul Butterfield and Coco Montoya. He cut Blue Streak as a trio followed by Squeeze Here in 2006.
He opens his 13-song set of covers and originals with a dark version of Muddy Waters’ “I Just Want to Make Love to You,” making it a hypnotic incantation of raw carnality inflamed by his stinging lead licks. His original “Big Legs Don’t Mean Fat” follows with a jaunty shuffle and wry lyric content that declaims, “Those fine long legs, man, is where it’s at.” “Voodoo Spell” gets all funky with a spooky guitar/bass unison lick contributed by guest bassist Hank Van Sickle that is driven forward by the fatback drumming of Eliot Witherspoon. Visiting primary roots, Jackson offers his creative take on the Robert Johnson classic “Stop Breakin’ Down.” With harmonicist Michael Fell filling and soloing on his “Mississippi saxophone,” Jackson sings with controlled passion that perfectly complements his razor sharp slide accompaniment.
A pilgrimage to the West Side of Chicago produces the minor key “Like Magic” that pays homage to Magic Sam. A musical spell is cast on the saucy, slow blues instrumental with Fell’s warbling harp and Jackson’s rhythm guitar before the leader opens up with a solo of uncompromising lyricism. “I Wanna Testify (About My Baby)” shuffles in with a swinging, finger-snapping bounce given buoyancy by bassist Joel T. Johnson as Jackson extols the virtues of his woman. As opposed to many of his contemporaries, he sings the blues with unforced authenticity that is totally convincing. John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williamson’s “Early in the Morning” finds Jackson and Fell dueting like a modern day Buddy Guy and Junior Wells. Powered by a churning bass string riff, the tune subtly rocks as it sets a flexible foundation from which Jackson soars and Fell explores the upper range of his harmonica. Without breaking stride the band transitions smoothly into the epic, heavyweight slow blues of “Shoulda Never Left Texas” featuring an extended, smoldering intro and two devastating solos from Jackson. The centerpiece of the disk and a vocal and instrumental showcase, it is a jaw-dropper that will have aspiring blues guitarists scurrying to the woodshed. Jackson’s voice drips with world-weary resignation as he defiantly responds to his “blues” by screaming and crying through his axe.
“Chicken-Legged Woman” is a dynamic change of pace as Jackson overdubs two acoustic guitar parts, strutting his Dobro slide chops with unquestioned authority. Jimmy Reed’s obscure tribute to Sonny Boy Williamson, “Don’t Say Nothin’,” has the band locking into the chugging boogie shuffle rhythm with conviction and power. Jackson then strikes a potent electric country blues stance on his “In the Doghouse Now” with appropriate imagery intensified by his guitar doubling the vocal hook. Keeping his set percolating “down in the alley,” he next proffers a dead on, greasy version of Waters’ classic “Long Distance Call” with nasty, snaky slide and a raw, shimmering harp solo from Fell. Apropos of a record that tells it like it is, the closing track, “LA to Austin” spins an autobiographical story that is both literal and symbolic of Jackson’s return to his home state. Musically it is also his tribute to Hound Dog Taylor as he rips and runs on the electric slide with lusty abandon.
B.B. King once said, “The blues are simple, anyone can play them, but would you want to hear anyone play them?” It should be added that it is not simple to come up with a recognizable signature sound and delivery, but Rocky Jackson is well on his way. Anyone who has caught his explosive live show or hears this record will certainly “testify” to that fact.
Dave Rubin, Staff Writer Guitar Edge Magazine