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Kirkland's unconventional approach works fine

Have Mercy
Have Mercy
By Eddie Kirkland

Pulsar (reissued by Evidence): 1988

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This review first appeared in the July/August 1989 issue of Living Blues magazine.

A fine harpist, better guitarist and impassioned vocalist, Eddie Kirkland could fairly be described as a stalwart of the blues scene. He has been round for decades but, despite some fine work, has yet to break into the ranks of the popularly known blues artists.

"Have Mercy," his first album for Pulsar, presents Kirkland performing nine of his own songs, all new, and is strong enough not only to please hardcore blues fans but to earn him crossover recognition from the soul and rock crowds as well.

The material on "Have Mercy" ranges from the hard-edged Chicago electric blues of "Young Man, Young Woman Blues," "Mary Lou" and "Crying Time" through the rollicking funk/blues hybrid of "Tomorrow May Bring a Better Day" to the Caribbean-styled "Golden Sun."

The best of the album, though, is the opening number, "Eddie's Calling You." This upbeat shuffle crackles with energy and has a great melody. Kirkland's vocals are rich, with a hint of fraying at the edges adding individualistic character.

But the two problems with the album both surface here on the opening number. First, the piano playing is hot, with a New Orleans boogie woogie style that adds much both in harmony and rhythm to the entire album. That, of course, is not a problem. What does detract from the project is that the piano player is not listed on the jacket. A minor detail, but aggravating nonetheless, considering the other musicians are listed. Second, the backing vocalists – the Ikettes – add nothing to the album with their slightly off-key harmonies. Throughout "Have Mercy" they seem uncomfortable with the material and unsure of how to approach it.

But our pianist – whomever it is – repeatedly pushes Kirkland in terms of both expressiveness and technical prowess.

Although Kirkland is not credited with playing harmonica, no other player is listed so it seems it is his harp work we hear throughout. On the traditional-style "Young Man, Young Woman Blues," Kirkland's harp playing sizzles, with the introduction performed in the same sparse style Kirkland employs on guitar elsewhere.

The most interesting tune on the album is surely "Golden Sun." An ode to Kirkland's birthplace of Jamaica ("I often dream of my native land," he sings in an early verse), the song contains a definite Caribbean rhythm, and Kirkland even sings in a West Indian dialect for a verse. The guitar solos are pure American blues, though, laid down over the calypso/reggae rhythm, for a difficult but riveting effect.

"Mary Lou" matches Kirkland's sparse guitar against the mystery pianist for a hot workout before "Somewhere in Your Heart" brings the tempo down a bit. Kirkland's solo here is slow, yet expressively passionate. On the down side, the Ikettes once again intrude on the otherwise fine music being laid down.

Kirkland has a simply great harp into on "Crying Time," and makes a strong argument that, were he forever banned from guitar, he could more than compensate on harmonica.

Eddie Kirkland is, from the evidence on "Have Mercy," a very unconventional bluesman, what his forays into calypso and funk. But, as "Have Mercy" also shows, convention is no measure of ability, and Eddie Kirkland is, indeed, among the top rank.