Howlin’ Wolf: Chess Singles ***** I was lacking in Howlin’ Wolf music and so I found something online, and its killer! The Complete RPM & Chess Singles As & Bs, 1951-62 aka All of the Wolf’s Great Music. WOW! 80 tunes! All the great ones: Smokestack Lightning, Moanin’ at Midnight, Down In the Bottom, Backdoor Man, Wang Dang Doodle, I Ain’t Superstious, Sittin’ On Top of the World and all of the others. Then there is the great stuff that I’ve heard on other people’s recordings like Tell Me, Shake for Me, and You’ll Be Mine, all covered by Stevie Ray Vaughan, which I hadn’t heard the originals until now. Howlin’ Wolf is THE BLUES and it’s the best kind of blues because it can exist on one chord and say everything there is to say about everything and serve as the basis for a whole future of un-imagined (at the time) other music. The SOUND is a huge, throbbing tumor of the most dangerous variety; pregnant, full of possibility and menace. How many other art forms can say that? Just letting all of these songs play renders the concept of “song” meaningless because they all merge into a glorious panorama that puts the listener in the death seat of a meth-fueled, flying muscle car, sailing down Highway 49 as the juke joints, clotheslines, rib shacks, old cars, beer signs, bent men, dancing women, razors, blood and whiskey blow by the windows… And yet…there is also a whole lotof baby let’s play house-type lovey-dovey rhythm and blues that’ll just knock yer socks off. This gets my highest rating and is heavily recommended.
The Complete Bukka White ***** A really great compilation from my favorite acoustic blues player. Bukka was an amazing singer and player with a style all his own and this disc has all of the great 1930s originals that Bukka recorded during his “first wave” of success as a musician. The searing, steely orchestral sound of Bukka’s resonator guitar is heard throughout, usually set to the “Crossnote” E minor tuning that he favored. Bukka sang about what he knew and his songs are early 20th century sketches on prison, women, music, fun, trains, drinking, the blues and hard times.
As it is with all of my other blues favorites, the vocal component to the music is at least as important as the guitar sound and style and Bukka is no exception. His vocal range spanned low, resonant musing blues, to having fun house party blues to the highest keening late-night wail that would peel paint and put the fear of God in even the most hardened criminal. This is evident on all of the tracks on the disc: Pinebluff Arkansas, Shake ‘Em on Down, Fixin’ To Die Blues, District Attorney Blues, Streamline Special, When Can I Change My Clothes? Parchman Farm Blues, Black Train Blues, and Strange Place Blues. Frequently accompanied by Washboard Sam on washboard and/or Napoleon Hairiston on second guitar, Bukka was one of the Blues’ most preeminent storytellers and this disc is a great collection of the best of those harrowing tales.
Robert Johnson The Complete Recordings ***** Speaking of harrowing tales, here’s a guy who knew a thing or two about the blues, the devil, and all of those things that go bump in the night. Robert Johnson’s collection of tunes, which later became the go-to repertoire for aspiring blues players, contains many a scary moment, which leads me to believe he was a pretty scary guy in real life too. Probably. Was he even real, a composite of many people or the genuine article? Sometimes, given his biography, it’s hard to tell. But this premiere collection, that was first issued in 1990 I believe, has all of those brilliant Johnson recorded moments and all of the best are here: Sweet Home Chicago, Ramblin’ On My Mind, Come in My Kitchen, I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom, If I Had Possession Over Judgement Day, 32-20 Blues, Crossroad Blues, Hellhound on My Trail, Drunken Hearted Man. Whew! Just the titles alone are enough to give a God-fearing man the willies. There is also Steady Rollin’ Man, Stones in My Passway, Last Fair Deal Gone Down, Kind Hearted Woman, Love in Vain, Terraplane Blues, and Little Queen of Spades. Even if you are not familiar with the old blues, it’s likely you have heard Eric Clapton, The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Cream, The Allman Brothers et al, The Blues Brothers and innumerable others cover these tunes because they are fantastic. Johnson was an unbelievable writer, and by all accounts a fantastic guitar player and entertainer.
Not only does this collection make for a very fine listening experience, the guitar abilities necessary to pull off the Johnson sound are formidable, which is where the legend of him making a deal with the devil at the crossroads in exchange for awesome talent originated. His frenzied picking, slide, rhythm, bass and lead work make for a complete blues orchestral sound. While he was theoretically a Delta musician, a great ear and great facility on the instrument enabled him to create a more complete song and sound than most of his, especially solo, contemporaries. Legend has it that Johnson live was just as adept at playing country or jazz of the day and songs such as They’re Red Hot and From Four Until Late show him leaning in a jazzier direction, although personally I like Johnson the bluesman a whole lot more. This was a very popular release when it first came out and it should be required listening for anyone attempting to play blues or roots guitar music.
Hard Again **** Muddy Waters was the preeminent blues bandleader of the 50s and came to define the Chicago sound. His performances were the stuff of legend and his recordings served as an blueprint for young players of the 60s blues “revivals”. Muddy and other blues artists enjoyed a renaissance in the 60s and 70s because the music was popular and they were able to play on bills with rock bands that covered their music. Throughout this time, Muddy was able to record with some top players, sell records and even…win Grammy Awards! In 1977 Johnny Winter produced Muddy’s first effort after leaving Chess Records called Hard Again…because Muddy said the collaboration with Johnny and the excitement of the music made him feel…excited and happy to be there!
Other musicians such as James Cotton, Pinetop Perkins, Bob Margolin, Charles Calmese and Willie “Big Eyes” Smith helped Muddy lay this disc down and the musical foundation was spot-on and in some cases, recalled Muddy’s great bands of the past. Songs such as Mannish Boy, I Can’t Be Satisfied, and I Want to Be Loved, were Muddy classics from the Chess era, but on Hard Again they are delivered with an enthusiasm and feel that is much more than a blues reprise. Other songs like Bus Driver, Deep Down in Florida, and Jealous Hearted Man continue the very live sound, havin’ a good time feel that permeates the record with Muddy clearly enjoying himself. This record also won a Grammy Award and is often referred to as Muddy’s Comeback Album. He and Johnny Winter would collaborate on four albums total into the 1980s, all of them reaching some measure of great blues success.
The Best of Muddy Waters ***** There are a few different versions of Muddy Water Best Of…packages and I’m not sure which one it is I have anymore. The audio quality is great and it has quite a few of Muddy’s classic performances: I Just Want To Make Love to You, Honey Bee, Got My Mojo Working, Trouble No More, Mannish Boy, Hoochie Coochie Man, and a few more.
Of course Muddy was one of 1950s Chicago’s greatest bandleaders and all of the jive and excitement from these Chess studio performances jump out as soon as “play” is pushed. While there are certainly more comprehensive packages, this one does serve it’s purpose to highlight some of the best of what one of the Kings of the Blues had to offer.
Live at the Regal ****1/2 BB King’s most influential album. A ton of people learned how to play guitar from listening to this record and playing along, including the likes of Duane Allman and Eric Clapton. I had this on cassette and loved to listen to it for the LIVE Club slash Revue feel that permeates the disc. Recorded in the mid-60s this was BB at the height of his powers; he pretty much DEFINED what the blues were and how they were played. While it may sound a bit dated today, this was how entertainment used to happen and the recording captures all of the sweat and excitement of this kind of show from back in the day.
Live at the Regal contains some of my favorite BB tracks, including Everyday I Have the Blues, Sweet Little Angel, How Blue Can You Get, and You Upset Me Baby. The band is top-notch of course, and while the King guitar style would provide many an inspiration for many a guitarist, it was the blues vocals that would not only help with BB’s fame and reputation but also, represent that one thing that many an aspiring blues slinger was unable to duplicate or even come close to. That was the magic of the BB King show; the passion and otherworldly delivery that was present in Lucille, his guitar, was also present in every croon, scream, and shout. While BB knew all about showbiz, everything he ever did came from the depth of his soul, which is why he was a blues ambassador for almost seven decades. This should be on every guitar player’s list of “albums I’ve heard”.
The Great 28 ***** The real KING of bluesy rock and roll — even Jerry Lee Lewis says so and Elvis probably would’ve admitted the same. Sure, this isn’t necessarily the blues, but all of Chuck Berry’s rock n’ roll originated in the blues sound and it’s my blog, so I’m making the call! While this isn’t the most definitive or esoteric collection, it is one that has all of the genre-defining, culture-changing songs that Chuck ever recorded. Chuck influenced everyone who came after and is definitely one of the most important influencers on the Guitar Highway. Inspired by T-Bone, Walker, Muddy Waters and his lifelong piano buddy Johnny Johnson, Berry crafted a guitar style that launched a thousand bands and probably a million guitar players. My favorites off this collection include—ALL OF ‘EM! Well except School Days. I hate that song.
While most of these tunes have done by everyone, many them, including Too Much Monkey Business, Maybellene, and Beautiful Delilah were never done better than what is on this record. Chuck’s use of funky double-stop chokin’ and furious rhythmic bending combined with great rhythm and blues sensibilities put the FUN in guitar playing. Oft and I mean really OFTEN imitated (and I don’t just mean Keith Richards-punk and garage rock would not exist without Chuck Berry) but never equaled, the debt rock owed to the late Mr. Berry can never be fully repaid. The Great 28 should be shot into space so that years into the future aliens will come to Earth looking to boogie and rock that joint round and round.
Couldn’t Stand the Weather **** Stevie Ray Vaughan blew out of Texas in 1983 on the smoking debut, Texas Flood and Couldn’t Stand the Weather, released the following year, showed the Texas guitarist in full flight. Stevie was an absolute TOTAL BELIEVER in the blues and in his own abilities to play them as well or better than anyone else and this conviction is what separated him from pretty much everybody. It didn’t hurt that he had completely awesome technique, incredibly strong hands, and a tone like no one else. He also had a lot of help from his band, Double Trouble. Bass player Tommy Shannon was and is a blues legend in his own right having played with Johnny Winter in the 60s and with SRV during the length of his major-label career and drummer Chris Layton was and is a very tasteful, driving drummer and both of these guys complimented Stevie perfectly.
Couldn’t Stand the Weather has a great flow to it and I like every song on here except Stevie’s version of Voodoo Child; I think he could’ve picked another Hendrix cover, but I know hardly anyone else will agree with me. I love the butt-tearing opener Scuttle Buttin’ which is music for a fight in a hot bar in Texas on a Saturday night. Tin Pan Alley a nine-minute guitar-a-ganza was recorded in 1 take. It was also the first song recorded for the album so it was a precursor of things to come. Cold Shot is easily one of Stevie’s finest ballads and even though he didn’t write it, he definitely made it his own. Of the songs he did write, the title track and Stang’s Swang are my favorites. Both of these songs step clearly out of the standard blues form but are completely a part of who SRV was. I LOVE Stang’s Swang and the vibe and atmosphere the band creates. Couldn’t Stand the Weather is built around a funky intro riff and then chugs into overdrive with Stevie’s modern take on the blues as solace in a troubled world. Things I Used to Do is an old number that Stevie revitalized (much like Texas Flood from his first record) turning it into a popular concert favorite in the process. The expanded Legacy Edition contains an interview and 3 bonus tracks including Hideaway and Give Me Back My Wig. The depth and breadth of this album scared a lot of guitar players and led to Stevie getting voted into top slots in the guitar magazine world. While it always came back to the blues, Stevie Ray was much more than a blues player and this record showed that he was a player to be reckoned with.
Dictionary of Cool *** This ain’t no pretty blues and it ain’t no jammy blues. It ain’t gonna blow you away with awesome technique or make you sit through 36 minutes of guitar soloing. This is the jive blues, shout blues, party-all-the-time kind of Elmore James meets John Lee Hooker Lo-Fi stuff that goes down as smoothly as old paint thinner. But you’ll like it because it’s been one of those days and nothing else will do…it’s either the Jam Messengers or Fentanyl and you got not bucks for Fentanyl.
I saw these guys in NYC recently and love the record The Dictionary of Cool,a good old time full of snarling guitars courtesy of Uncle Marco Butcher and the testifying power of singer/poet/Blues Shaman, Rob K. Diggin’ Better the Devil, Police Beat, and the rousing live crowd pleasin’ Hammer and the Nail. This is lo-fi, minimalist, no-bs, shake-yo-hips jamming and wailing at it’s absolute best. Uncle Marco plays skins and guitar at the same time! It’s amazing! Take that Yngwie Malmsteen! In your face Reb Beach! You can boogie onto the floor with your special someone if you are so inclined, or just get your head right and shout along with the band. More people should be making music like this because it’s righteous, honest and is a really good time to see live or watch live. Spin this the next time you have friends over and turn your pad into a Memphis house party.