Back in the mid-sixties, Vanguard issued a series of three albums called Chicago/The Blues/Today!, produced by Sam Charters. In retrospect, most of the performances weren't really exceptional—Johnny Shines. Walter Horton, Johnny Young, Junior Wells and Otis Rush have since made better recordings—but when these LPs appeared, they were a revelation. Because here was evidence of a blues tradition, rooted in the Deep South, that not only lived but thrived in Chicago's cold, windswept South and West Side ghettos. The old-timers were taking care of business, and some impressive younger talents were coming along, too.
Many people assumed in 1965 that the blues must be dying out in Chicago. Many more people would probably make that assumption in 1979, but Alligator's three-record Living Chicago Blues proves them wrong. Produced by Bruce Iglauer and Richard McLeese over a period of several months and programmed with three groups per album (in explicit homage to the Charters set), Living Chicago Blues is the definitive modern blues collection of the Seventies. And it's a measure of this music's continuing vitality that the most striking performances here come from men who, while they're not exactly youngsters, are still virtually unknown outside the Chicago blues clubs.
Left Hand Frank and Jimmy Johnson, who conspire to make Volume 1 the best single entry in the series, are cases in point. Frank Craig plays the guitar left-handed and upside down. He never recorded under his own name before this session, and still works in Chicago as a sideman, most notably in the past year with Jimmy Rogers and Walter Horton. Craig's playing is whining, distorted and chordal—he uses a four-finge, picking style—and brings to mind some of the most down-home electric blues of the Forties and Fifties. Jimmy Johnson, brother of soul singer Syl Johnson, is a thoroughly modern bluesman with a gospelish voice and a harmonically sophisticated single-string guitar style that's sometimes reminiscent of Otis Rush. These men represent the extremes of modern Chicago blues, and both are simply devastating.
The third bluesman on the LP, Eddie Shaw, is somewhat better known, having been Howlin' Wolf's bandleader and a recording artist on his own (as Eddie Shaw and the Wolf Gang) with Wolf's old band. But Shaw's previous album only hinted at the punch and personality that his five songs deliver here. All in all, Volume 1 is the most satisfying disc of newly recorded blues in many moons.
Volume 2 concentrates on older styles of performance—there's nothing as flashy or modern as Jimmy Johnson. The highlights are four numbers by Carey Bell, who's made several LPs under his own name but has yet to unleash the full range of his talents. His slow tunes, "Woman in Trouble" and "Laundromat Blues," are the deepest songs in the series, with Bell's intimate, almost whispered vocals recalling the second Sonny Boy Williamson in subtle expressivity, if not style. Bell's son, Lurrie, who was only nineteen when this album was made, contributes some wonderfully sensitive guitar fills. The uptempo cuts really rock, and Carey Bell plays terrific harmonica solos.
Though Magic Slim and the Teardrops lack Bell's steadiness, their "Stranded on the Highway" is a fine traveling blues, and "Dirty Mother for You" takes advantage of modern mores to get some hoary blues scatology on wax. Johnny "Big Moose" Walker is a storming barrelhouse pianist, but he should have let guitarist Louis Myers take a couple of the vocals. Walker just isn't much of a singer, and that weakens an otherwise enjoyable set.
Lonnie Brooks, who used to make records for Louisiana's Goldband label as Guitar Jr., is the surprise of the series. His music is witty, soulful and ferociously energetic, brimming with novel harmonic turnarounds, committed vocals and simply astonishing guitar work. He shares Volume 3 with Pinetop Perkins (the veteran blues pianist now with the Muddy Waters Band), who romps through an infectious, atmospheric program of down-South blues and boogie, and a group called the S.O.B. Band. (In this case, S.O.B. stands for Sons of the Blues.)
The S.O.B.s—all in their twenties or younger—include Willie Dixon's son, Freddie, and once again, Lurrie Bell. Bell is already an eloquent blues guitarist, with a feel and sound of his own, but harmonica man Billy Branch sings like a white blues imitator (he's black but grew up in California). The band plays solid music and certainly offers some hope for the long-range future of blues in Chicago. But blues is the voice of experience, and these musicians are going to have to live awhile longer before they can match the magic that Left Hand Frank, Jimmy Johnson, Carey Bell and Lonnie Brooks are still creating daily.
The sound quality and musical consistency of Living Chicago Blues puts the earlier Vanguard set to shame. These albums shouldn't be missed. If your store doesn't stock them, you might want to inquire directly: Alligator Records, Box 60234, Chicago, Illinois 60234. (RS 292)
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