When rock artists are looking to get their mojos workin’, they head to Memphis or Mississippi for a blues infusion. So what does a blues artist do when it’s time to rock ‘n’ roll? If you’re Samantha Fish, of Girls With Guitars (Fish, Cassie Taylor, Dani Wilde) fame and, increasingly, solo acclaim, you don’t even linger considering New York, L.A., or Seattle—it’s time to book a flight to the Motor City, baby. That’s where the young guitar wizardess hooked up with members of the Detroit Cobras and producer Bobby Harlow, who, prior to being a go-to studio guy for numerous garage outfits, fronted Detroit punk provocateurs The Go. Throw in a New Orleans-based horn section, and you’ve got Chills & Fever, a blisteringly fine set of rocking soul that both showcases Fish’s estimable fretboard skills and demonstrates her intuitive gifts in selecting classic, maximum-impact material to perform.
Indeed, it’s an intriguing setlist, kicking off with “He Did It,” which sharp-eyed readers with long memories will recall both the Ronettes’ original version and the Detroit Cobras’ 2001 remake—the latter looming large for Fish’s romping j’accuse here. Another iconic female’s song closes out the album, Lulu’s ’64 hit “I’ll Come Running Over,” in Fish’s able hands (and pipes) transformed into a pure garage-rock anthem. In between you get a spine-tingling take on Skip James (“Crow Jane,” featuring some seriously bad-ass cigar box guitar work from Fish), not to mention Nina Simone (“Either Way I Lose,” wherein Fish consciously adds some Simone-like vocal inflections to give an already moody, mournful tune a downright haunted, desolate vibe).
And when she turns her attention to straight-up soul, she’s clearly in her element: Her shudder/shimmy/shake appropriation of R&B perennial “Chills & Fever”—which some may recall from Tom Jones’ over-the-top performance—is authentic enough to give Amy Winehouse nu-soul devotees pause; tackling Barbara Lewis’ eternal “Hello Stranger” puts her squarely in Daptone Records territory (additionally suggesting that Gabe Roth and his Dap-Kings have a potential protégé in Fish); and “It’s Your Voodoo Working,” originally a regional hit in the early ‘60s for Louisiana R&B singer Charles Sheffield, is simply jaw-dropping, as Fish, against a throbbing beat punctuated by jabbing horns, figuratively drops to her knees and howls in pain while unleashing primal peals of guitar.
I used the terms “nu-soul” and “appropriation” a few seconds ago, and that was intentional. White artists sometimes get accused of trespassing upon another race or ethnicity’s territory, but while a half-century ago this might’ve occurred tainted with patriarchal, even malicious, intent, in 2017, it’s time to get over it. There will always be opportunists who jump at the chance to hitch their boxcars to a profitable musical locomotive. But when someone like Fish comes along who so transparently exudes nothing but love, admiration, and respect for artists and songs that have had a profound impact on her, you need to take it at face value. Most of the people who originally wrote these 14 songs (12 if you get the vinyl) have passed on by now, but one can only hope that, at some point, Fish has the opportunity to bring those who are still with us onstage and show the world how it was done and how it’s gonna continue to be done.