A Consumer Guide to the Trailing Edge: February 2004
by Tom Hull
2003 was "the year of the blues" -- officially proclaimed by the U.S. Congress, presumably early enough that they didn't know how true it would be. That, in turn, occasioned an avalanche of events and tie-in products. Perhaps thinking of Ken Burns Jazz, the majors went looking for a comparable PBS take on the blues, and came up with Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues: famous filmmakers slumming in digital video. Whereas Burns' take on jazz was skewed -- too American and too pre-WWII -- it at least was consistent on what it concentrated. The Scorsese videos, on the other hand, were more like the tale of the blind men each describing a different part of an elephant. As for the tie-in products, I can't tell you much: a 4-CD box set, a best-of, soundtracks for each video, plus ten single-CD single-artist comps, but I haven't heard any of them. Still, they got me to looking at what else was out there. Most of what I've found and haven't written about previously follows, but that isn't much. Blues CDs come out at a rate of about 10 per week, which means roughly 500 per year. I figure that 70-80% are reissues, but that's just a guess. (Wouldn't it be nice to be able to throw ad hoc SQL queries at AMG's database?) I've heard 40-50 of them, but even those are mostly redundant or only marginally differentiated from the 500 or so blues albums I've heard over the years.
The blues canon isn't huge. Robert Santelli wrote a book in 1997 called The Best of the Blues: The 101 Essential Albums, and he didn't really miss much -- at least along the Mississippi-Chicago axis (Memphis Jug Band, Johnny Shines, Etta James; slightly further afield one could note the absence of Leadbelly, Sonny Terry and/or Brownie McGhee, Champion Jack Dupree, Professor Longhair, Taj Mahal, Z.Z. Hill). But the curious thing about blues as a genre is that it is fragmented and discontinuous. Jazz, for instance, is a continuous river of past references: if you pick up a trumpet today, you necessarily peer back through history all the way to Louis Armstrong. Saxophone? Coleman Hawkins. Piano? Earl Hines. Blues, on the other hand, is a bunch of patches: the classic female blues of the '20s, the rural folk blues of the '30s, the jump blues of the '40s, the hard rockers of the '50s, the British romantics of the '60s, the rock recidivists of the '70s, the soul refugees of the '80s, the white women of the '90s, assorted oddities everywhere. This patchiness is because blues isn't a coherent category: it tends to be what's left after you factor out everything else, especially if the performers are black. It's kind of like the order Reptilia in chordate phylogeny: it's one or more primitive categories, from which mammals, dinosaurs, and birds eventually emerged. The difference, of course, is that musical evolution isn't genetic: one effect of this is that soul (like Solomon Burke) and even rock stars (like Elvin Bishop) now show up in the blues bins, reminding us that one more definition of the blues is marginality. One more thing to get the blues over.
All blues (more/less) this time. Back to the usual mix next time.
The Best There Ever Was (1927-35 , Yazoo). The rule of thumb is that if you want to listen to pre-WWII American music at length, go to Europe: Germany for country, Austria for blues, France for jazz, the U.K. for budget compilations of all three. Part of this is that Europe's copyright laws do a more equitable job of balancing public and proprietary interests; part of it is just that the major U.S. companies rarely bother to look back that far. One U.S. label that has long bucked this trend is Yazoo, which has more than 100 CDs of ancient blues in print -- nowhere near as comprehensive as Austria's Document Records, but in a world reconstructed from scratchy 78s completism can wear out its welcome fast. On the other hand, this disc is a superb introduction to that world, with its primitive guitar-accompanied blues modulated only by its 20 distinctive singers, ranging from the haggard Blind Willie Johnson to the mellifluous Mississippi John Hurt, with Memphis Minnie the only woman -- and she sings tougher and a notch lower than woebegone Skip James. Only the title is misleading: this avoids the signature songs of its stars, but elevates its unknowns to their level. A
Blues Story (1920-84 , Shout! Factory, 2CD). The story starts with Mamie Smith's first-ever blues record, 1920's "Crazy Blues," and ends with Big Mama Thornton's Elvis-ready "Hound Dog," with a few later records shuffled earlier in the deck to ease the flow. The first disc starts with classic female blues (Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith) and raw country blues (Blind Lemon Jefferson, Son House) before swerving into jump blues (Louis Jordan) and proto-soul (Ruth Brown, Bobby Bland). The second disc turns on the juice in Chicago (Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf) then slows down for the early '60s folk blues revival (Mississippis Fred McDowell and John Hurt). The picks are so obvious that you probably know most of them already, but if you don't, this is the best primer I've seen since The Blues: A Smithsonian Collection of Classic Blues Singers went out of print. A
Big Bill Broonzy: The Essential (1930-42 , Classic Blues, 2CD). The blues may be a bunch of patches, but if you tried to pick one central figure you'd have to pick Broonzy. Born in Mississippi, raised in Arkansas, he got a sense of the world when he was drafted and shipped off to France in the Great War, and got a distaste for the South as soon as he got back. He moved to Chicago in 1920, learned guitar, and cut tons of records -- Document has collected 291 songs in 12 CDs, which just takes him up to 1947, and skips dozens of collaborations issued under other names. He sang what he called "the old blues," but he bridged the whole songster tradition, joined Georgia Tom and Tampa Red in the Famous Hokum Boys, and he advanced the music through his progressive combos. Chicago Blues starts with Broonzy, and new arrivals like Muddy Waters sought him out. He toured Europe in the '50s, playing with trad jazz bands and planting the seeds for blues rockers from the Animals to the Yardbirds. Late in life he traded in his slick suits for overalls and spearheaded the folk blues boom, which was taking off when he died in 1958. He was an extraordinary musician, and by all accounts an extraordinary human being. You can dive into his recorded legacy at any point and come up with treasures. This set, culled from Document's often scratchy 78s, is a bargain ($12.98 list): the sound and documentation could be better, but it cuts a broad swath through the catalog, including some fascinating sideman pieces. A
Dr. John: All By Hisself: Live at the Lonestar (1986 , Skinji Brim/Hyena). Mac Rebennack's recording career goes back to his teens, when he was playing piano in studio sessions in a town that was swarming with great piano players -- like Professor Longhair, Fats Domino, Huey Smith, Allen Toussaint, James Booker, plenty more. He had a fluke hit as Dr. John the Night Tripper in 1968, cut on studio time booked to Sonny & Cher. Stardom was fleeting, but in 1972 he slowed the skid with Gumbo, his marvelous tribute to the New Orleans piano greats. In the '80s he cut a series of solo piano albums, while doing yeoman work in studio sessions and dabbling with jazzers -- his 1990 trio with Fathead Newman and Art Blakey, Bluesiana Triangle, was his best since Gumbo. But the problem with his solo work is everybody's solo piano problem: even with 88 keys and infinite combinations, it inevitably sounds samey. So I didn't expect much from this live session -- reportedly the first of many private tapes to come -- but it's actually quite a performance. He kicks off with a rousing boogie woogie, and keeps the rhythm pumping all the way through. He also sings; his warm, gravelly voice delivers on his plea in one song, "Let's Make a Better World." Also includes a DVD: a trend and gimmick these days, but here a useful complement. A-
B.B. King: Blues Kingpins (1951-62 , Virgin/The Right Stuff). Before he was a legend he was the hardest working bluesman in Memphis: his singing gave Otis Redding a monumental challenge to top, and his guitar gave Eric Clapton a lifelong career to follow. The blues are usually an old man's game: guys like John Lee Hooker and Lightnin' Hopkins sounded ancient even when they were young, so it's striking just how young King sounds here. He was a country boy with a quick grasp of the freedom that the city offered: even his remake of "Every Day (I Have the Blues)" comes off as a joyous celebration of his own kickass performance. (The only other non-original here was his 1954 recording of "Whole Lotta Love," amusingly credited to "Plant-Page-Jones-Bonham.") His long run with MCA is much better known, but this was his prime. A
Heroes of the Blues: The Very Best of Furry Lewis (1927-70 , Shout! Factory). If the extremes of Mississippi's Delta Blues could be plotted out as a triangle, they would be the stern Son House, the haunted Skip James, and the preternaturally calm Mississippi John Hurt. Like those three, Furry Lewis recorded a bit c. 1930, then went into occlusion until the folk blues boom of the '60s. But Lewis was comparatively indistinct, sounding a bit like each. At least that's what I've long thought, but this comp helps bring him into focus. "Take Your Time" does sound like Hurt, but that's hardly something to complain about. His guitar is distinctive, and his wordplay around his name is delightful. His late sessions with Lee Baker, Jr. are especially revelatory. A-
Memphis Minnie: Me and My Chauffeur (1929-44 , Proper, 2CD). What these days we call "classic female blues" was an early casualty of the Great Depression: Ma Rainey didn't record after 1928, and Bessie Smith cut her last record four years before her premature death, while old age came before Sippie Wallace and Alberta Hunter got a chance to launch their comebacks. But at least as an occupational category the blues women from the '20s were jazz or pop singers; the folklorists who went south in the '30s looking for real folk blues were looking for something else -- guys with guitars and tales of hard times. Minnie didn't fit that stereotype either, but she came as close as songsters like Big Bill Broonzy and Tampa Red, she could play in their league too, and she could sing in a lower register than Skip James or Robert Johnson. She married guitarists three times, and they got to play with more than her poodle -- but she didn't record until she teamed up with her second, Kansas Joe McCoy. And she more than held her own solo until the third, Little Son Joe, teamed up with her. A-
The Johnny Otis Show: Cold Shot/Snatch and the Poontangs (1969 , Ace). John Veliotes was an anomaly in the '40s, changing his last name to Otis, all the better to pass for black. His r&b band was hit-and-miss, but it launched at least one significant career: Little Esther, aka Esther Phillips. His 1969 album Cold Shot was better than most, with a hit called "Country Girl" and an amazing jive-ass version of "The Signifyin' Monkey." Snatch and the Poontangs came out uncredited, but it kicked off with "The Signifyin' Monkey Part 2," with the language juiced up another level. And that was just the start: risqué blues has been a staple since "Shave 'Em Dry," but this one isn't about sex so much as pure motherfucking language -- except, that is, the sublingual "Two Girls in Love (With Each Other)." For bonus tracks, Ace dug up a take of "The Dirty Dozens." Cover art looks like R. Crumb. Inside spread looks like Gilbert Shelton. (Both credited to "The Hawk.") A-
Putumayo Presents American Blues (1972-2002 , Putumayo World Music). It's impossible for a landlocked American to know just how accurate a world music comp to Cape Verde or Colombia or even the French Cafés is. We tend to take them as exotic artifacts and are grateful for the new experience, even if we're not quite sure what it means. But when the globetrotters take on something as familiar as our homegrown blues, they're risking their reputations. This one seeks to narrow the subject to "contemporary blues artists" -- only two songs here predate 1995, which hardly seems like a strong point either. Today's crop of blues artists are a motley bunch: aging soul singers, chitlin circuit vets, folklorists, guitar slingers, Janis Joplin wannabes, stubborn relicts. But this turns out to be a useful cross-section. Taj Mahal's "Cakewalk Into Town" (1972) is the only one here that you're better off seeking where it came from, but Eric Bibb's plaintive gospel "Needed Time" is a revelation, and the others get to show off their wares before they wear out their welcome. The documentation is also useful. Turns out that even with something as easily accessible as contemporary blues it helps to have a guide. B+
Ike Turner: Blues Kingpins (1952-61 , Capitol/The Right Stuff). Turner's reputation has been dirt since Tina dumped him, but before he met her he had so much grit in his guitar that he drove the saxophone plumb out of primitive rock 'n' roll, and he hustled hard enough that he's one journeyman whose name is remembered. Much of his '50s work was released under other names, usually the vocalist. (Billy Gayles' "Night Howler," here, sounds more like Fats Domino than Smiley Lewis ever did.) Rhino's I Like Ike sketched out the high points of Turner's story, including the broken amp that begat what many consider the first real rock 'n' roll song: Jackie Brenston's "Rocket 88." This avoids duplication -- the only title in common is the instrumental "Prancing" -- making it less compelling, but the sloppy seconds paint a fascinating picture of a music in transition. B+
Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson With the Cannonball Adderley Quintet: Cleanhead & Cannonball (1961-62 , Milestone). Vinson sang blues and played alto saxophone. He dropped some jump blues hits in the '40s like "Cherry Red," and kept going well into the '80s. His style and repertoire changed little over time, but he was personable and immensely entertaining -- cf. the two Blues in the Night volumes, recorded with Etta James in 1986. The edge on this album is the band: one of the strongest jazz groups working at the time, let loose on a blues holiday -- especially noteworthy is Nat Adderley's lusty cornet. A-
Sonny Boy Williamson: When the Sun Goes Down, Vol. 8: Blue Bird Blues (1937-47 , Bluebird). Born John Lee Williamson, he did more than anyone in his time to establish the harmonica as a blues instrument. But he was killed in a robbery in 1948, when he was 34, and shortly thereafter he even lost his good name to a shady character named Aleck "Rice" Miller. Despite being older, Miller's career as the second Sonny Boy Williamson completely buried the first: Miller matched his model on harmonica, was a more distinctive singer, and had a sense of timing that was just uncanny. But the original Sonny Boy is worth a listen too: these 25 songs cover his career fairly, including many songs that became blues standards -- a few as sung by Miller, and a few done definitively by Williamson himself. A-
Copyright © 2004 Tom Hull.