Ever since I saw Dennis Coffey perform during SXSW, I’ve been telling people that they know his work, just not by name. If it doesn’t ring a bell, I’ll give you a brief overview: he played guitar with the legendary Funk Brothers, Motown Records’ in-house backing band. He also played guitar on such notable records as “It’s Your Thing” by the Isley Brothers and Edwin Starr’s “War,” and scored the movie Black Belt Jones. In honor of this album’s release, Detroit-based deejay House Shoes put together this mix to give everybody a quick history lesson. It does a great job encapsulating both what he contributed and who he influenced.
With an artist who’s been around as long as Coffey has, there’s always a moment of doubt in my mind with seeing them in concert or listening to a new album, and for no other reason than I’ve been burnt before. I wish my dad and I had never gone to see Wilson Pickett on stage, as it has forever tarnished my image of him, stumbling through the set drunk and high as his guitar player tried to get the audience to cheer after every song for the “Wicked! Wilson! Pickett!” Other artists are happy to just go into the studio every few years, put some notable names on the record, rehash some old material, and it’s clear their heart isn’t into it. Well, let me put all these fears to rest. Seeing Coffey in concert, he surrounded himself with a group of young musicians who could really play, and fed off their energy. It wasn’t slick, it wasn’t pretentious, and nobody was phoning it in. Here was a man who could be resting on his laurels for the rest of his life playing for a relatively small audience, and it was clear that he was enjoying it as much as anybody.
I’m happy to report that this album captures the feeling I felt that night. The material is a mix of older songs that are being re-interpreted and new compositions, and it works well. If you’re not already familiar with any of the songs, you’d think they were all written for this album, which I think speaks to Coffey’s talents as arranger. Coffey is joined by Orgone’s Fanny Franklin, Mayer Hawthorne, The Bellrays’ Lisa Kekaula, The Dirtbombs’ Mick Collins, The Detroit Cobras’ Rachel Nagy, Paolo Nutini, and Kings Go Forth, all of whom fit into the framework of the album perfectly. If I had to pick a favorite, it would have to be Collins and Nagy on the cover of Funkadelic’s “I Bet You.” It’s pretty faithful to the original, but it’s just dripping with soul and energy. I love it. While it would have been easy to hide behind these guests, the instrumental tracks on the album are just as strong as anything else. Coffey has a playing style that can carry a track, but never wanders into self-indulgent noodling that plagues so many technically proficient players. It’s always about song structure and arrangement, then fitting in tasty licks to enhance the song. Aspiring guitar players could learn a lot from Coffey.
Dennis Coffey is a rare treat, and hopefully everybody will learn the name of one of the great guitar players/writers/arrangers of our time. Coffey gives us an album that is full of life and energy. If you don’t know his name already, you will.
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