Blues Arts Studio - Review of "Undertow"
Artist: Cathy Ponton King / Title: UNDERTOW / LABEL: LONG GONE

It’s hard enough to create a new album even when you’ve got all the time in the world. For Vienna, VA-based singer/guitarist Cathy Ponton King, it’s been particularly a struggle, actually a labor of love five years in the making wherein she’s had to make time nearly each night for this endeavor while juggling the roles of working mother and career woman—not to mention frequent entertainer. “It was like giving birth,” she says. But knowing Cathy, it’s always been a matter of quality rather than quantity. It’s hard to believe that her last such undertaking, Lovin’ You Right, is already fourteen years behind her, a sterling calling card which served her in good stead for many years as her “message in a bottle,” being constantly “discovered” anew both here and abroad. And there is no reason to doubt that Undertow won’t further cement her reputation as one, if not the premier female blues interpreter of the Mid-Atlantic region.
Some listeners, if they are expecting the usual 12-bar blues format, might be disappointed, but as its title suggests, all the songs contained therein have a basic blues “undertow.” “It has bedrock blues elements. Why limit myself? Why should I be shackled to any such formula?” says Cathy in explaining her approach to these recordings which, by the way, are all well crafted, refreshingly original compositions written by either her or her producer/husband Jeff King. And anyone who has ever witnessed any of her performances can attest to the fact that she has always straddled multiple musical genres from folk to jazz to hillbilly to gut bucket blues. In fact, onstage she’s likely to pull anything out of her hat.

I guess I’m prone to hyberbole, but I have to admit that this CD is the genuine article, one of the best packages to come down the pike in years, and aside from a cameo harp appearance by her late father Tommy, “Pop Harpin’,” all of the tracks can stand on their own merits, and indeed are superb. At least a good half dozen are every bit as memorable as anything being proffered to the public today, including the C&W flavored, sassy “Little Bridge,” (which kicks off the album) with its punchy, funky horn section of Bruce Swain (sax), John Jensen (trombone), and Chris Battisone (trumpet). Nashville, are you listening? Then there’s the jazzy and breezy “Since You’ve Gone,” wherein Cathy is ably backed by members of her own stage band—Bob Berberich on drums, Jim Robeson on bass, and the great Bill Starks on piano, who provides an absolutely scintillating solo. The following cut, “Comfort & Blessings,” finds Cathy chugging along in a catchy, Willie Mitchell/ Al Greene groove. And the last three tracks are all solid winners, including the rollicking, Otis Redding-like “Soul Touch” and two plaintive, introspective ballads—the wistful “Soft Sound” and achingly bittersweet “Undertow,” both expressing intensely personal feelings of regret and longing.
Cathy’s voice, too, over the years has become quite refined, evolving into a mellow, rich, and subtly shaded instrument which both complements and reinforces the mature themes expressed in most of the songs. From a perspective of over three decades as a performer, it’s obvious that she has grown commensurately as an artist and now is confidently in complete control of her material.

Kudos also go out to Jim Robeson (a two time Grammy winner—Mary Chapin Carpenter and Cathy Fink & Marcy Marxer) who wore many hats in this affair, including producer, engineer, editor, mixer, and even background singer and who has patiently been onboard this project from the outset, ensuring that its technical sound quality is second to none. And it also doesn’t hurt in the least that it was recorded at perhaps the best facility in the area—Bias Studios in Springfield, VA.

Undertow is undoubtedly the magnum opus of Cathy Ponton King, a magnificent achievement well worth the wait. And most certainly will prove to be a breakthrough. Believe me, Undertow will not go unnoticed.

PS: … Cathy King’s extensive biography can be found at: www.bluesart.at/NeueSeiten/Arch03.html — Larry Benicewicz

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Larry Benicewicz is a blues and New Orleans music writer who lives in Baltimore. He is music director for filmmaker John
Waters and works for the French record label Dixie Frog.

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