A master in his prime

George Mitchell’s jaw was on the floor when he first recorded R.L. Burnside in Coldwater, Mississippi, on a sweltering night in August of 1967. Mitchell had already recorded several established musicians in the area (Will Shade, Furry Lewis, Fred McDowell) when a friend of Burnside’s — the harmonica player Johnny Woods — told Mitchell about Burnside. First Recordings reveals a musician playing and singing in a hypnotic, cyclical style that contained elements of McDowell and John Lee Hooker, but was unlike anything anyone had ever heard outside the micro-locale of North Mississippi. The complex repetitive motions he unleashes on self-possessed numbers like “Jumper On the Line,” “Long Haired Doney,” and “Goin’ Down South” give Burnside a power and a presence befitting a full band, and he never — ever — misses a beat. Mitchell’s 1967 session would mark the beginning of a long and fruitful career. First Recordings not only captures a master in his prime, but preserves that moment of jaw-dropping discovery when the immense power of an unknown musician first touched foreign ears.

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