"I can't seem to do the right things for you," Cool John Ferguson croons on With These Hands' centerpiece, "Let Me Be Your Man." His voice is as stirring an instrument as the six-string he wields so capably, able to proffer a low rumbling basso as well as a cleaner baritone purr. He begs for her to let him in, with a high octane mixture of regret and frustration as his guitar playing simmers. This funky Chicago blues number features some of Ferguson's best call-and-return vocal/guitar work, as the supple electric whine echoes his deep yearning. Ferguson grew up on gospel, the low country blues of South Carolina, and a healthy dose of R&B, all together the basis of his sound.
But he's hardly limited by his upbringing: The six-minute instrumental "Big Storm" blows a Yardbird-ish garage riff into an expansive blues fusion thunderhead that unleashes Ferguson's ample pyrotechnics, and it's followed by the jazzy, calypso sway of "Golden Girls." Indeed, one of the great joys of With These Hands is the ease with which Ferguson segues between styles, creating an evolving energy from the lively first half to the second half's gentler, late-night vibe. While the shimmying soul-blues of album opener "Who Did That?" turns the oven on, it doesn't really get hot until Ferguson breaks out the "Black Mud Boogie," one of five instrumentals. The bustling low-country twang conjures a rural juke-joint jive. That moodier second half is highlighted by the imaginative, dub-inflected "Gris Gris Isle" and the pretty cabaret-jazz number "Kickin' It," which epitomizes Ferguson's broad palette and boasts an impossibly infectious buoyancy. While it often bears only a passing resemblance to Ferguson's fiery live performances (more closely documented by his previous Music Maker Relief Foundation releases), the cohesion and flow of With These Hands recommend these 15 tracks as a worthy experience of their own.
Cool John Ferguson plays Hideaway BBQ Friday, Nov. 23 at 9:30 p.m.