And This Is Maxwell Street
(Rooster Blues Records © 2000)
Well, there's no way around this one... I have to include it again this year as another Stocking Stuffer pick. "And This Is Maxwell Street" is perhaps one of the most evocative blues sets ever issued. When Delta Blues artists, and many others made their way into Chicago, they found themselves a goldmine known affectionately as "Jew Town." A multi-block area around Maxwell and Halstead streets was cordoned off each and every Sunday where storekeepers would have sidewalk sales, neighbors would sell unwanted items, and in turn, it became one of the country's largest flea markets. Bands and individual performers opened up shop on corners and anywhere else they could find, setting out to play for passersby, in return making decent wages for an afternoon's work. This is where we come in, only a number of years later. Robert Nighthawk (known here as Robert Night Hawk) was criminally under-recorded when one considers that he made records over a period that stretched four decades. His style of guitar playing is unmistakable; when deploying his slide, Nighthawk's prowess and creativity allowed him to step beyond what many recognize as the more popular slide sounds waxed by performers like Elmore James and others. I'll leave the rest of the story for another time and return to the element at hand. What we have here on "And This Is Maxwell Street" are 3 discs, a pair of which contain more than two hours of music as played on the Chicago sidewalks by Nighthawk, Johnny Young, Cary Bell, Arvella Gray, Big John Wrencher, James Brewer, and a few others. The set is dominated, rightfully so, by Nighthawk, who handles over an hour with a small band. His guitar playing runs the gamut from sweet and sensitive to rude and chaotic, ripping through "Cheating And Lying Blues," "The Time Have Come," and plenty more. Johnny Young delivers a small handful of brilliance, as does Wrencher, a one-armed harmonica player possessed of a fierce attack, and Cary Bell, who displays some early wizardry as well. There are gospel sides by Gray and Brewer, plus a number of other recorded gems, including banter from the hawkers and gawkers, car horns making a few statements, sounds of coins bouncing into tin cups, and plenty more to keep your blues fanatic occupied long after the holidays are gone. The third disc is devoted to interviews of Nighthawk by Mike Bloomfield, then a youngster living in the city, who chased blues relentlessly. This was Chicago, a few decades past, and sadly, the Maxwell Street area is all but a forgotten wellspring of immigrants, musicians, and bargain hunters. The music is as rude and emotional as life itself, and to pass this up is criminal. Packaging is stellar, liner notes are housed in a 60+ page booklet, and THESE are the Maxwell Street recordings to have. Don't settle for knockoffs (mentioned in my Stocking Stuffers 2000 shorts), contact www.roosterblues.com and find out what the fuss is all about. More powerful than a locomotive, able to leap... well, you get the idea.
James Harman Band
Extra Napkins - Strictly The Blues Vol. 1
(Cannonball Records © 1997)
James Harman Band And Buddies
Mo' Na'kins, Please - Strictly The Blues Vol. 2
(Cannonball Records © 2000)
Okay, you're wondering why I picked these two discs, one from 1997, and another from 2000, right? Simple. Blues is timeless, and to prove that fact, a number of years ago, James Harman hopped into the wayback machine with Mr. Peabody, and some friends, and they slathered blues all over themselves. Thankfully, Cannonball Records and Mr. Harman saw fit to serve this up as a disc since "Extra Napkins" was originally issued back in 1988, and previously unavailable as a CD. When it first hit the stores in vinyl form, it was regarded as one of the finest modern blues releases in years, and it became a cult classic. Why, you ask? Well, it's that timeless thing again. Harman, an Alabama native who replanted himself in California years ago, immersed himself in a burgeoning blues scene that included names like Hollywood Fats, Kid Ramos, Fred Kaplan, Willie Campbell, Jeff Turmes, Gene Taylor, and countless others. Thanks to Bob Rivera, a blues fanatic and owner of Rivera Records, the now-defunct label that released these sides, Harman was allowed to book studio time for a straight-ahead blues project where he had the opportunity to call in anyone he felt was right for the session. The result was hours of undiluted tracks that seemed as if they rose like a phoenix from long-gone studios in Chicago, West Memphis, Texas, and beyond. "Extra Napkins" bears gems from Harman's pen that make a seamless fit to chosen covers of Howlin' Wolf, T-Bone Walker, Sonny Boy Williamson, and more. "My First Crime," "Just As Well To Kill Me," "Ain't That Fine," and others, aren't that old, they just sound it. What's missing are the pops and scratches familiar on old 78's. Hollywood Fats was the preeminent guitarist who Junior Watson called an important influence, as did Kid Ramos, who, back in the 1980's already had more talent than the law allows in some states. These men sound so close to revered players like Willie Johnson, Robert Jr. Lockwood, and Luther Tucker, that you'll be looking for the liner notes to see who's actually listed. The title track is a smoldering harp instrumental with only Watson's guitar and Jimi Bott's hoof-like shuffle drumming in support, while Sonny Boy's classic "Sad To Be Alone" could almost pass as an outtake from the Checker vaults. "Hand In Hand," an old Elmore James nugget, sounds like it was found in the Flair Records locker, and Harman recreates Big Walter Horton's banana-in-the-reeds harp tone for Tampa Red's "Rambler's Blues." If there's one shortfall here, it's that the original LP version wasn't fattened up at all when issued on disc. What you get here is exactly what you got on the old platter, but wait, I'm not finished...
When Harman signed with Cannonball Records, part of the agreement was, that along with new material, the label would reissue work from the "Extra Napkins" sessions. And we pick up somewhere in Chicago in 1958... oh sorry, this is James Harman in California in the 1980's, right? Where Volume 1 plates up about 40 minutes of smokin' blues, Volume 2 contains almost 50 minutes of the same, "what year did you say was this recorded?" tributes to masters of blues. The bonus here is that all this was previously unreleased. Again, Harman's originals, this time with 7 of the 14 tracks his, are custom-fit alongside recreations of Champion Jack Dupree, Lightnin' Hopkins, Gatemouth Brown, and more. The title track rears its head twice, once as a full band arrangement, and a later, stripped-down take with only harp, piano, and guitar. Both are tough as nails, while "Icepick's Pawnshop Blues" is respectfully dedicated to Big Maceo and Little Brother Montgomery, two piano giants who resided in Chicago. "Icepick Boogie" is a Harman gem, with buzzing horns and blazing guitar from Kid Ramos, who takes a torturous solo in Gatemouth Brown's "Dirty Work At The Crossroads." Dupree's "Shim Sham Shimmy" could easily be mistaken for a Red Robin alternate, and Harman's own "Chumpman Blues" is rude-as-you-please with asphalt vocals, march 'em to hell drums from Jimi Bott, and Junior Watson's backporch electric guitar, while Ramos manages a startling likeness to Lightnin' Hopkins' guitar with "Jake-Head Boogie." Here's the bottom line... this is feral stuff. James Harman knows his way around a harmonica, sings with old-school phrasing, and writes incredibly smart lyrics. His sense of humor is beyond bizarre, while his cohorts, many of whom he still records with today, all acquit themselves with a sense of maturity seemingly beyond their younger years. Harman is perhaps one of the most genuine of blues artists working today, and these classic recordings are a testament to his sincere gratitude for a music, and the musicians he admires and respects. You can contact www.canball.com for more info. So, get out some barbecue sauce and have James Harman and friends along for Christmas dinner. And while you're there, take a moment to remember Michael "Hollywood Fats" Mann... Highly recommended.
Raisin' Sand - Chicago Blues - Vol. 2
(Indigo Records © 2001 Import)
Beg, borrow, or panhandle... whatever it takes to latch onto this nugget from Indigo. I'll cut to the quick by saying there are 24 cuts of utter brilliance packing this disc, all recorded between 1948 and 1950. The key figures were all running partners at a time when Chicago Blues was becoming the full-blown assault that labels such as Chess and Vee Jay would later capitalize on. Muddy Waters leads 4 tracks cut for the Chess brothers' Aristocrat concern, which predated the launching of the Chess label (history would later prove that Muddy and his longstanding association with the Chess family would lead the blues market for years). "Muddy Jumps One" is a thundering slice of boogie featuring Waters, Big Crawford's rumbling upright bass, and Baby Face Leroy Foster's drilling guitar. Foster becomes the primary focus as he handles 8 cuts out front and assists on all but a small handful. His vocals were masterful, with a sense of phrasing second to none, as amply shown on "Shady Grove Blues," and "Locked Out Boogie," both sides waxed at the tail end of a Muddy session. Also aboard is pianist Johnny Jones, with his excellent "Big Town Playboy" and "Shelby County Blues," which finds Waters and longtime sidekick, Jimmy Rogers, laying out the guitar lines, while Foster supports with the backbeat, then Leroy reappears with a lustrous "Take A Little Walk With Me," and a swaggering "My Head Can't Rest Anymore," both with Snooky Pryor's confident harmonica. Baby Face was always on target, but his two-part "Rollin' And Tumblin' " remains as the marked brilliance it exudes . Cut in 1950, Foster was accompanied by Waters' unmistakable slide guitar and Little Walter's earthy harp playing for a raucous, amplified, two-sided field holler complete with moans, whoops, and yelps, while Baby Face pushed the proceedings ahead with his clobbering bass drum. Muddy was under (a handshake) contract with Aristocrat, and Leonard Chess was incensed that his lead figure recorded for another label, Parkway. Although the shoestring imprint was no threat to the Chess machine, Waters was forced to recut the title which appeared on Aristocrat, successfully burying Foster's superior version, and it wasn't long before Baby Face Leroy parted ways with Muddy. Little Walter takes four, with three giving a strong dose of his surprising guitar work, including the brutal "Muskadine Blues." These were Jacobs' first ventures as a recording artist, and were issued on basement-budget labels like Ora-Nelle and Chance. Robert Nighthawk has a pair, as does Snooky Pryor who adds the relaxed title track, and Sunnyland Slim closes out with "It's All Over Now" and "Back To Korea Blues," from 1950. Sound quality is superior and the short, but detailed liner notes are interesting. This music, and the individuals present, became the linchpin that carried blues from the Delta to Chicago's noisy surroundings, thereby defining a new age and style. "Raisin' Sand" is one of the finest compilations of Chicago Blues available, period. Absolutely recommended!
Indigo Records www.trojanrecords.com
At Newport 1960
(MCA Records © 2001)
Muddy Waters' performance on July 3, 1960, in the quaint seaside town of Newport, RI, was a revelation for many. At a time when folk music was making itself known, and indeed, blues giants of the past were being "rediscovered" and marketed as 'folk blues' practitioners, Muddy Waters and his driving band electrified the audience made up of mostly jazz buffs. Supported by James Cotton on harmonica, Otis Spann's piano, Pat Hare's guitar, and a rhythm section of Andrew Stephenson and Francis Clay, on bass and drums respectively, Muddy tore through his set further disabling an already sunbaked crowd. From the opening notes of "I Got My Brand On You" to the crowdpleasing closer, "I've Got My Mojo Working," Muddy was in strong form, as were his sidemen. Cotton's harp barks and growls with fervor through the 30-plus minutes of the 'live' action, while Spann takes the fore on the true gem here; a penned-at-the-moment "Goodbye Newport Blues," a collaboration between Waters and Langston Hughes, plus Spann's on-the-spot arrangement. The track is a moving social comment on the riots that forced the end of Newport's festivals for some years. The classic 'live' recording is trussed out with the addition of four bonus studio tracks, all recorded in Chicago just a month prior, and perhaps rehearsals, as three of them showed up in the setlist when Muddy and his rousing band closed the proceedings at Newport. Muddy Waters, the most important figure Chicago Blues has ever known, and his energetic sidekicks, were in prime shape this July day in 1960, and the bonus material makes an already classic set even healthier. Suggested listening.
MCA Chess (MCA Records 2220 Colorado Ave. Santa Monica, CA 90404)
Plays Chicago Blues
(Hightone Records © 2001)
If it weren't for liner notes and session details, Henry Gray's newest CD, "Plays Chicago Blues," could easily be mistaken for a recording of some 50 years ago. A stalwart pianist, Gray was a charging force in Howlin' Wolf's band for a ton of sessions, and also contributed his skills to a long list that includes the likes of Little Walter, Billy Boy Arnold, Bo Diddley, plus a large handful more, also managing to record a number of gems that remained hidden in vaults for decades. I'll leave that brief story for later and get to the business at hand. Backed by Kid Ramos, Bob Margolin, Chico Chism, Bob Corritore, and others, Henry Gray has succeeded in taking the 'old' out of Chicago Blues, and inserting it, lock-stock-and-barrel, into a newly-recorded CD that burns from beginning to end. Sounding considerably younger than his 75-plus years, Gray plays effortlessly throughout, while his sidemen rely on tried-and-true traditionalism, making for a superb set of blues. Gray penned 8 of the 14 tracks, and on the other half-dozen, he touches on catalog pages from Elmore James to Wolf, and beyond. Ramos is masterful on four, playing rhythmic Chicago-styled figures, and Margolin handles five, locking in on his Muddy-like slide for a taste, while Johnny Rapp tackles guitar on all tracks. Special mention should aptly go to Bob Corritore not only for his period harmonica work, but as the producer responsible for not "producing" these recordings. If you thought they couldn't make records like this one anymore, think again. The reworked "That Ain't Right" and "Showers Of Rain" were cut eons ago, and among those unissued nuggets I previously mentioned, and are revived on this gem with absolutely no modern conventionalism whatsoever. I may need to dig out the valuable Genesis LP's to see if these aren't the original versions! Henry Gray has plenty left in his tank, and this set will convince any nay-sayers. Completely enjoyable.
I'll Be Your Mule
(Delmark © 2001)
Steve Freund's latest offering is a great blend of varying blues styles, showing his strengths as a writer, and proving beyond any doubt that his voice has become as soulful as his guitar playing. The 65 minutes of music here run the gamut from stripped-down, reworked-until-fresh tracks like "Something To Remember You By," from Guitar Slim, B.B. King's "Fine Lookin' Woman," with stinging guitar, or the charging, Freddy King-like instrumental, "Fittin' To Go," by Freund himself. Another 6 of the CD's 13 tracks come from his pen, and he has matured into a complete artist with this, his second Delmark effort. The list of sidemen is just as impressive as the final outcome with friends like Dave Specter, who handles the producing details and adds some fine guitar on two cuts, Harlan Lee Terson and Bob Stroger splitting bass duties, Steve Guyger adding some tasteful harp on a few, and Mark Braun handling the piano chair, while Kenny Smith, a relative newcomer, holds the grooves together with tight drumming. Horns are present on a handful with arrangements from Dave Clark, who has a lengthy background in the Windy City. A longtime resident of Chicago, Freund moved out to the Left Coast a while back, and returned to craft a valuable addition to his solo catalog, one that is sure to grow considerably after this set. Hearing Steve Freund develop over the years has been a pleasure for many, and with "I'll Be Your Mule," the focus is smartly on his ability to convey true feeling and dedication on each track without ever dominating the proceedings. Recommended.
Delmark Records: www.delmark.com
(Catfish Records © 2001 Import)
Catfish Records from the UK, continues as one of the leading proponents by releasing a steady barrage of well-thought compilations such as this one. "Prison Blues" is a 23 track, midline priced, one-hour disc with a wonderful array of blues pioneers and relative unknowns alike. Kokomo Arnold, an extremely popular artist who made his home and bootleg liquor in Chicago, leads off with a disturbing account titled "Chain Gang Blues," which sets the theme for the remainder of the set; this is early and raw blues, with a common thread about being in jail, and wishing to be elsewhere. Buddy Boy Hawkins implores his jailer to wake up and free him from the "Jailhouse Fire," and Sylvester Weaver, a Georgia native, is utterly convincing with his "Penitentiary Bound Blues" from 1927. Peg Leg Howell, another Georgian, is brutally honest in "New Prison Blues," while Fred McMullen is assisted by Weaver for "DeKalb Chain Gang," a terrifying story of what it must have been like for many Southern Blacks who found the wrong side of a county sheriff. Merline Johnson, with "Crime Doesn't Pay," is joined by part of the 'Bluebird' stable, Lester Melrose's hand-picked sidemen who appeared on countless 78's throughout the label's duration, and Blind Boy Fuller plays some fine resonator guitar for "Big House Bound," capably backed by Sonny Terry's backwoods harmonica. Other notables are Julius Daniels with his spellbinding "Ninety-Nine Year Blues," "Blind Lemon's Penitentiary Blues" by a Texan named Jefferson, Frank Busby's "Prisoner Bound," and plenty more. A worthwhile collection that sheds light on a subject many rural African-Americans were all too well schooled in. Highly enjoyable.
Catfish Records www.catfishrecords.co.uk
(Indigo Records © 2001 Import)
New Orleans is a great place to spend time during the holidays, and "Carnival Day" captures the essence of the Crescent City with 24 sides of celebrated, rollicking music from its leading practitioners, with all tracks recorded in New Orleans, which only adds to the spirited feeling. Henry Roeland Byrd, aka Professor Longhair, dominates the set with 9 gems that still defy accurate description more than fifty years after they were waxed. Longhair's brilliance was in his ability to blend blues with Calypso and Latin influences, ultimately concocting a gumbo of delicious flavors. Add to that a comic's wit and masterful piano work, and the outcome is in full view with "She Ain't Got No Hair," "Her Mind Is Gone," and the supercharged "Hadacol Bounce," which features buzzsaw guitar by Walter "Papoose" Nelson. Dave Bartholomew, a respected bandleader, contributes a handful which include the title track, and a steaming "Ain't Gonna Do It," plus, he donates his arrangements to a number of others, including those by Fats Domino, Smiley Lewis, and more. Roy Brown is aboard with "Long 'bout Midnight," Paul Gayten adds "Hey, Little Girl," and Archibald's two-part "Stack-A-Lee" is a romping jewel. With a list of sidemen including Earl Palmer, Alvin "Red" Tyler, Tuts Washington, and more, there are no shortages in the groove or solo departments and sound quality is superb. Indigo adds another winner to their catalog with the release of these sides, so drop one into a stocking in your house, then request it when the time comes to sit down and eat. You may be consuming large quantities of turkey and all the fixings, but this small platter serves up some necessary spice. Fun stuff!
Indigo Records www.trojanrecords.com
Jerry "Boogie" McCain
This Stuff Just Kills Me
(Jericho © 2000)
Jerry McCain got together with an impressive list of friends for this fine CD, which came out in the middle of last year, and was sympathetically produced by blues guru, Mike Vernon. Teaming up with the likes of Anson Funderburgh, Jimmie Vaughan, Carl Sonny Leyland, Derek O'Brien, and others can't be a bad move for anyone. McCain has a pedigree dating back to the 50's when he began recording for the Jackson,MS, label, Trumpet. Further recordings on Excello, Jewel, Rex, and other imprints dished up consistent efforts with McCain's fiery harmonica as the key point. This CD focuses squarely on songwriting, retro sounds, and guests who contribute to the finished product, which is a disc packed with an hour of distinctive tracks. McCain penned all twelve cuts, and is more than ably assisted by his partners in crime. Funderburgh, Vaughan, and O'Brien add vintage-like guitar throughout, with Jake Andrews present on a handful, and Leyland's piano is on the mark for six. John Primer, Tommy Shannon, Chris Layton, Johnnie Johnson, and others get in on the fun as well. As a singer, McCain is workmanlike, while his harp is sheet-metal tough, especially on "Madison Mood," a riveting instrumental. The title cut, along with other gems like "Deadbeats" make for a solid outing, and let's hope we continue to hear from this amazingly young sounding veteran. Impressive.
Jericho Records (Sire-London Records 936 Broadway New York, NY 10010)
The Fabulous Thunderbirds
(CMC International © 2001)
Here's one that's sure to please just about anyone, even those who don't consider themselves to be blues fans. The Fabulous Thunderbirds rocketed into Los Angeles in mid-February of this year becoming one of a small handful of bands that have aired 'live' broadcasts via the internet. Kim Wilson, the only remaining figure from the original T-Birds, along with Kid Ramos, Gene Taylor, Willie Campbell, and Steve Hodges, set up shop on a small soundstage in the City Of Angels, and proceeded to flatten the small but appreciative crowd. From the crushing opener, "Wait On Time," a Wilson original that reared its head on their initial outing back in 1979, there is no doubt that these Fabulous Thunderbirds are a well-oiled machine with each and every cylinder firing off some of the hottest blues and rock and roll imaginable! Ramos' guitar work throughout is stunning, playing with his well-known reckless abandon, and in the process, leaving historic evidence that will disable listeners for decades; the crumbling "I Can Tell," reduces the surroundings to ashes with blazing and seemingly effortless playing. Kim Wilson, now an older statesman who belies his age, is nail-tough as a frontman, and his harmonica work continually expands the horizons of blues. Gene Taylor, familiar to many from his work with James Harman, adds rocking keyboards to the affair, as Campbell and Hodges weaken the stage to splinters with their incredibly simple, yet harrowing rhythmic sense. This is an astounding document that leaves little doubt as to who the butt-rockin' kings of blues and rock and roll are. The 14 tracks cover over an hour of rumbling music, with Ron Holden's gritty "My Babe," Guitar Slim's "The Things I Used To Do," Magic Sam's incinerating "Look Watcha Done," and others, all served smoldering hot. Horns are present for a number of cuts, adding a bit of upper class crust to an otherwise lowdown performance. Wilson splits his time between solo projects (see my review of "Smokin' Joint in Part 1 of 2001 Stocking Stuffer reviews), countless guest appearances with an ever growing list of notables, and with The Fabulous Thunderbirds. While blues is heartily at the core here, they beat the daylights out of anything they touch. Astounding!
Tip Of The Top
(King Ace Music © 2000)
William Clarke, an imaginative harmonica showman and natural vocalist, left a legacy anyone would be proud of. Learning at the feet of the late, great George "Harmonica" Smith, Clarke became a powerhouse on chromatic, an instrument that should well be left untouched by most. This testament is a highly rewarding compilation of early sides recorded with a stunning array of friends in tow. Hollywood Fats, still regarded by many as the undisputed king of modern blues guitar, shows up on four, as does Junior Watson, and Ronnie Earl contributes one, while Joel Foy handles most of the balance with grace. George Smith takes the fore on "Hard Times," a wonderful slow blues laced with tough harmonica, and Clarke manages everything else, while joined by Charlie Musselwhite for "Charlie's Blues," where the sensitive interplay between the two is evident. Clarke's voice became stronger with his years, which ended all too quickly, and his harp work was never less than riveting; he was a master of huge tone. The 'live' recording of "Chromatic Jump" was taken from the 'Battle of the Harmonicas' in 1985, and proves beyond doubt Clarke's abilities were continuing to mature. Fred Kaplan and Rob Rio contribute solid piano, and the rhythm section is Willie Brinlee and Jerry Monte, both strong and solid. Sadly, we have witnessed the passing of Hollywood Fats, George Smith, and William Clarke, but with this CD on King Ace, we have the opportunity to see what a vital blues area the West Coast was then, and continues to be today. The addition of four previously unreleased tracks makes this set highly rewarding. A winner.
Do You Get The Blues?
(Artemis © 2001)
Jimmie Vaughan and his Tilt-A-Whirl band can chalk up another victory with the release of "Do You Get The Blues?" on the Artemis label. Following "Out There" and "Strange Pleasure," two muscular accounts with plenty to offer, Vaughan brought George Rains and Bill Willis, the 'tilt' and 'whirl' in Tilt-A-Whirl, into the studio to dish out another powerful set of heavy blues and more music that refuses to be pigeonholed. There is no mistaking Vaughan's tone or attack as he reinvents himself and his playing, continuing to redefine what blues guitar is. From the gruff and in-the-alley opener of "Dirty Girl," Vaughan and company, along with a healthy dose of guests, including James Cotton and Greg Piccolo, allow their music to breathe, in turn letting the listener digest what's going on. From the loping Texas grit of "Out Of The Shadows," to Lou Ann Barton fronting the "Power Of Love" with more twang than any woman should be allowed to sing with, Vaughan handles the affairs with incredibly moving solos, and perfection in the rhythm department. If it weren't for Jimmie's never-far-from-straight-blues playing, "Let Me In" would fit comfortably on radio, while "Robbin' Me Blind" returns to a tried-and-true Texas backbeat, with upright bass. Veteran drummer George Rains is the perfect foil for Vaughan, as Bill Willis' dynamic keyboard work pumps the fuel to a well-tuned engine. After vacating his chair in The Fabulous Thunderbirds, Jimmie Vaughan has served up consistently rewarding work, if all-too-infrequently. With his newest effort, he retains his roots, while stepping into uncharted territory without any qualms at all. Sure to satisfy.
Artemis Records: www.artemisrecords.com or www.jimmievaughan.com
Johnny's Blues Aggregation
(Dallas Blues Society © 2001)
Planning a Christmas party? Kick off the proceedings with "Oh Baby Oh" from Texan Johnny Moeller's newest disc. Making a name for himself as one who cares nothing about guitar heroics, Moeller took time from a rather busy schedule to collect a bunch of friends for this deck of a dozen. While still quite young, and obviously talented, Moeller could easily dominate anything he takes part in, but instead, would rather have his playing blend with its surroundings. On "Johnny's Blues Aggregation," he has succeeded easily. He steps up for brilliantly concise solos, disappearing to become part of the foundation that holds the house together. The pair of instrumentals, "Bak 'N' Forf" and "Slingin' Hash" feature plenty of guitar, but ample space goes to others, proving Moeller's understanding of what makes a cohesive unit. Top-shelf vocals here are split between Matt Farrell, who contributes fine-tuned piano, and Homer Henderson, who also handles rhythm guitar for a couple. Upright bass is present on each track from Mike Keller and Johnny Bradley, and Moeller's brother, Jason, who takes the vocal on "J's Scratcher," propels everything forward with in-the-pocket drumming. The decidedly retro-sounding product is just what Moeller was aiming for as they went in and recorded without the use of overdubs or other modern tools. With many bands trying to sound 'old-style' nowadays, Johnny Moeller and his aggregation sound that way because that's the way they play. It's one of those things you either have or you don't... "Johnny's Blues Aggregation" has it, in spades, I might add. Excellent!
Dallas Blues Society Records: www.dallasbluessociety.com
Ronnie Earl And Friends
Ronnie Earl And Friends
(Telarc © 2001)
Ronnie Earl returns in 2001 for a highly rewarding effort that not only showcases his skills as one of the more electrifying guitarists around, but offers plenty in the way of guests who bring more to the table than talent. Earl's guitar is definitely to the fore here, but the guests; James Cotton, Luther "Guitar Junior" Johnson, Irma Thomas, Kim Wilson, David Maxwell, and Levon Helm, plus a few more, sparkle with each passage. Wilson's vocals have become as powerful a tool as his harp playing, and old warhorses become fresh and exciting with him out front. Little Walter's "Last Night" and "Blue And Lonesome" heave with dynamics, and "Rock Me Baby," an old Arthur Crudup gem, shows respect while turning the page. Guitar Junior stands toe-to-toe with Earl on Magic Sam's "All Your Love," while Eddie Taylor's "Bad Boy" trembles with energy. Irma Thomas is wonderful for the "I'll Take Care Of You/Lonely Avenue" medley, and "New Vietnam Blues" smolders. Cotton's harp graces a handful, as Wilson joins in for "Mighty Fine Boogie," with the pair recalling Carey Bell and Big Walter Horton's finesse. The late-night feel of "Twenty-five Days" has Ronnie's trademark restrained passion, and Maxwell is stellar with a retake of Otis Spann's "Marie," a storming piano workout. No stuffing here, this is the whole bird. A must!
Telarc (Telarc Intl. 23307 Commerce Pk. Rd. Cleveland, OH 44122)
Show-Biz Blues 1968 To 1970
(Volume 2 Receiver © 2001 Import)
Peter Green's all-too-short time at the helm of Fleetwood Mac, the UK's tightest and toughest blues outfit ever, was marked with incendiary guitar playing, deeply moving vocals, and an ability to transcend time. In an era when blues-based music was changing considerably and rapidly, Green and his cohorts didn't come off as mere imitators, they were accepted by those they idolized, recognized by thousands, and in turn, laid down some of the hottest tracks that would emanate from Britain's shores. This two-disc set is the long-awaited follow-up to "The Vaudeville Years," an earlier, just-as-necessary double. Disc one starts with Green's guitar behind Peter Bardens for a small handful, and quickly moves forward for what made Fleetwood Mac so acceptable; they played their blues seriously, but also knew well-enough to clown and ham it up from time to time. Jeremy Spencer's 50's rock 'n' roll pieces were plain fun, while his Elmore James alter-ego showed some fine slide playing attributes. The three gripping versions of Peter Green working up to what became the title track are cost effective enough, as they make this purchase worthwhile, but the rest of the all-previously-unissued set makes it even more compelling. Disc two begins with "Black Magic Woman" and "Jumpin' At Shadows," both from a Boston show, showing Peter Green at the height of his powers, while the stunning "Rattlesnake Shake" and "(The) Green Manalishi" are proof-positive that he was one of the most creative and genuine of blues artists, one with little fear about moving ahead, while most of his peers stood still. Sound quality is beyond excellent, packaging is superior, and the smart liner notes make for interesting reading, as much as they uncover little-known facts about one of the premier guitarists of our time. Strongly recommended!
Indigo Records www.trojanrecords.com
Peter Green Splinter Group
Me And The Devil
(Snapper Music © 2001 Import)
Peter Green's return from grave illness and forced medical problems has been a cause for celebration. Regarded by some, this writer included, as the UK's finest-ever blues guitarist, "Me And The Devil" is a beautifully packaged 3-disc set from Snapper and well-worth hunting down. First off, it's a limited edition, individually numbered set, with a mere 10,000 copies available. As a bonus, Steve Lavere's finely-penned liner notes read like a short story, and there just aren't enough of those around. Thirdly, there are two discs, both issued previously as "The Robert Johnson Songbook" and "Hot Foot Powder." Both sets from Green and the Splinter Group rework each and every classic by the great Robert Johnson. Done with respect, each track shows what Johnson might have been sounding like just prior to his mysterious death in August of 1938. It has been said that he was playing with small bands including both drums and piano, and that's where Green and his fellows come in. The arrangements are spot-on, the music brilliantly played, and each track breathes with conviction. While Peter Green may not be quite the live wire of his earlier days, he has now taken on the role of an elder statesman, a role in which he seems more comfortable. The third disc in the set offers up all 29 of Robert Johnson's songs, by the master himself, and affords the listener an easy switch from the breathtaking 1936 and '37 recordings, to the here-and-now, as played by Green and his cohorts. Grab this one up quick as it's a sure bet all copies will be spoken for in the near future. Simply brilliant!
Snapper Records: wwwsnappermusic.com
John Lee Hooker
(Indigo © 2000 Import)
Speaking of John Lee Hooker, here's another prize, though in shorter and smaller form. Indigo has released a wealth of great, vintage blues and this 20 track gem is a solid primer for those not ready yet for the full-on assault of the 10-CD set above. Sonics are excellent throughout, including gems like "Lowdown Midnite Boogie," "I'm Gonna Kill That Woman," and the droning "Landing Blues." This one hour of Hooker; mostly alone with his sheet of plywood, stomping shoes, and guitar, will satisfy those in need of a quick fix. Sleeve notes are informative and Indigo's prices are low enough to compete with any label out there. Easy to find, with some rare, new-to-disc cuts, and small enough to fit in those stockings. Great stuff!
Indigo Records: www.trojanrecords.com
John Lee Hooker
Portrait Box Set
(Past Perfect © 2001 Import)
Alright, all you Hooker fanatics listen up! We all decide to buy our own Christmas presents every now and then, and this is one of those opportunities where the wife, husband, or significant other, can't raise too much of a fuss. A 10-disc boxed set of chronological John Lee Hooker through different stages of his career, spanning 149 tracks and over seven hours of The Boogie Man. Sound quality gets a good rating, although a few cuts suffer since they were dubbed from less than pristine examples, or poor masters. The session with Lowell Fulson and S.P. Leary backing is almost worth the price tag alone, and that price tag won't set you back too far considering what's here is a budget-line item. The 40 page booklet is interesting; if only as an example of how-not-to-write liner notes, but the bottom line is easy... with the multitude of John Lee Hooker releases to choose from, this one is perhaps the best at covering a lot of years, a lot of tracks, and a lot of great blues from a master. Potent.
Past Perfect Records: www.timcompany.com or email@example.com
Lightnin' And The Blues
(Buddha Records © 2001)
Lightnin' Hopkins recorded more times, for more labels, than most bluesmen could dream of. Most times he was on his game, and at other brief moments, it was a hit-or-miss affair, at best. Of all the sessions Sam Hopkins took part in though, none will ever match the brilliance of his work for the Herald label. Backed by a simple duo of bass and drums, who perhaps spontaneously combusted during these recordings, Lightnin' brought along an electric guitar and a small amplifier, sat down, and commenced to making history. The sizzling "Lightnin's Boogie" is only overshadowed by the crippling "Movin' On Out Boogie," while slower tempoed pieces like "Sick Feelin' Blues" round out the set. The 16 tracks don't show the royal flush that an import, 26 cut CD did some while ago, but the budget-line price will award those with light wallets or tight pocketbooks. Lightnin' Hopkins was almost always worthwhile, but there simply isn't any better introduction to his unconventional style than the two sessions he waxed in the later 1950's for the fledgling Herald label. Buy this, or prepare to clean coal out of your own stocking this year. Flat-out essential!
Buddha Records: www.buddharecords.com
Shake Your Money Maker
(Buddha Records © 2001)
What could be better than Elmore James for the holidays? Dean Martin and Bing Crosby just aren't gonna cut it for many, so it's onward for brutal, in-your-face slide guitar antics, and declamatory vocals guaranteed to shatter tree ornaments across the street. Elmore James roared with a voice that sounded like a slant-6 Dodge at full throttle while his guitar clanged and thrashed in a manner not unlike a transmission ready to disintegrate. This isn't for the faint of heart, it's 16 tracks of violently beautiful sides waxed for Bobby Robinson's Fire label years ago. From the stumbling "Look On Yonder Wall" to the fervor of "Sunnyland," Elmore and his crew of aces follow the trail out of the Delta, blazed by Son House and Robert Johnson, winding up in Chicago's clutches for "The Sky Is Crying." Joined by King Mose, Johnny Jones, Sam Myers, Big Moose Walker, and many others, this is great material from one of the more influential guitarists of this century. And what's the big deal that Elmore wasn't a crooner of Christmas carols? There ain't many that could work up a sweat like this guy did. Strong.
Buddha Records: www.buddharecords.com
The Definitive Box Set
(Catfish © 2001 Import)
Charley Patton was to Delta Blues what Edison was to the lightbulb. He was regarded by many of his peers as the starting point for blues, just as surely as others saw him as more of a sleight-of-hand, hijinx artist. What is certain is this, Patton's canon of work shows some of the toughest music ever recorded. His vocal style may be an acquired taste, but there's no escaping the fact that these performances are some of the most moving examples of blues, gospel, and Americana. Backed primarily by his own flailing guitar, and accompanied by the inimitable Willie Brown on a few, Patton took his energy straight out of the Delta, rumbled north to Grafton, WI, and later New York, transferring that primal scream-and-holler style directly to disk for Paramount and other labels in the 20's and 30's. His "Pony Blues" was an inspirational source for Howlin' Wolf, "Screamin' And Hollerin' The Blues" is just that, and the two-part "High Water Everywhere" is a chilling account from an eyewitness who saw devastation at every turn in that late 1920's. There are 58 tracks in all, with excellent mastering, so Patton's words are now more understandable than ever before. Son Simms saws on violin for a handful, and Patton's wife, Bertha Lee, adds vocals now and again, making it even more interesting. The smart packaging in its timely looking box, the individual period CD sleeves resembling old 78 rpm covers, and the intelligently written booklet with priceless artwork, all make this one of the best purchases around for those who love their blues straight-up, with no chaser. Catfish continues as one of the leaders in the reissue stakes, and their prices can't be beat. Essential listening!
Catfish Records: www.catfishrecords.co.uk
Greasy Kid Stuff
(Evidence © 2001)
Kid Ramos... what is there to say about this West Coast wizard that hasn't been said already? With this brand new Evidence disc, his third and perhaps best yet, Ramos assembled a gang of harp-blowin' lunatics that raise the bets considerably on how to make a party CD... you get Rod Piazza, James Harman, Paul deLay, Charlie Musselwhite, Rick Estrin, Johnny Dyer, and Lynwood Slim, all taking part for an awesome set of solid blues and R&B styles that run the gamut from the lowest of the lowdown, to the sharpest of New Orleans and West Coast grooves. If that's not enough to whet the appetite, the title track, a slamming instrumental, is a lesson in tone, taste, and finesse. Add to that, James Harman cackling his way through the old Clarence Samuels' masterpiece, "Chicken Hearted Woman," while Ramos slashes and burns for all he's worth. As a side note for all those parents trying to teach their young what great music is all about, Ramos has just enough of an edge to attract those less-than-enthralled kids, making them turn to ask... "who is THAT?" Smoldering!
Evidence Music: EvidenceMusic@aol.com
Harp & Soul
(Fuel 2000 © 2001)
Here's one that the Salvation Army should purchase in the thousands to hand out as "thank you" items when we pass by and drop money in the pot. 18 carats of harmonica gold grace this one hour disc from Fuel 2000. While many may be familiar with Louis Myers' abilities on guitar behind Little Walter, most aren't aware that he was a monster of blues harp as well. His two sides, "Just Whaling" and "Bluesy," are masterful, and feature the genius drumming of one Eugene Lounge, a man who was every bit the equal of Fred Below. Sonny Boy Williamson cut a tandem of unreleased gems for the Cobra label in 1958, the well-known "Steady Rollin' Man" and a wistful version of "Keep Your Hand Out Of My Pocket," joined by only Willie Dixon's upright bass, and Harold Burrage's solid piano on one, while both land squarely as perhaps Williamson's finest tracks in his lengthy career. Little Willie Foster's "Little Girl" is rough and tumble Chicago heat, John Lee Henley's "Rhythm Rockin' Boogie" is soaked in power, and Johnny Shines is joined by Big Walter Horton's massive harp attack on the classic "Evening Sun." Snooky Pryor, Junior Wells, Jerry McCain, and many others drop in on this set, adding considerably to the outcome. It's all harp, it's all heavy, and it's all blues, from some of the unsung heroes of a bygone era, and others recognized as leaders and innovators. Suggested listening.
Fuel 2000 Records: www.EMusic.com
Piano Blues - The Essential
(Classic Blues © 2001)
Here's a 2-CD set with a title that proves truth is in advertising. The Classic Blues label, in conjunction with the fine import Document imprint, have begun issuing some top-shelf compilations of early blues styles. This is all piano, from lowdown drags to uptown stomps and boogies. Disc one features 18 tracks from well-known purveyors like Roosevelt Sykes, Pinetop Smith, Cripple Clarence Lofton, and many more who proved their mettle easily enough, including Turner Parish, whose "Trenches" rumbles with effortless power. Jim Clark's "Fat Fanny Stomp" is perfect for that Christmas morning boogie, and "The Dirty Dozens No. 2" from Speckled Red is a gem. Disc two showcases another 18 solid cuts with Meade Lux Lewis' piano throwdown on "Honky Tonk Train Blues," Wesley Wallace hits with grace on the simply titled "No. 29," and Peetie Wheatstraw rocks back and forth with his nugget, "Shack Bully Stomp." In addition to these thundering boogie woogie men, there are sides by a multitude of others. Montana Taylor, Louise Johnson, Cow Cow Davenport, Leroy Carr, and Walter Roland among them. The slim-line price won't knock out too many bank accounts, and while packaging is minimal, the gold inside is what matters most. Thoroughly enjoyable.
Classic Blues Records: www.allegro-music.com
Sun Records - 25 Blues Classics
(Varese Vintage © 2001)
Okay, this one's a necessity, so don't ask any more questions as to why. Just buy a bunch of copies and hand them out as the guests converge on your homes for those great holiday parties. 25 cuts of what the Sun label was all about before, during, and after... Elvis. Joe Hill Louis opens the set with a fierce "We All Gotta Go Sometime" and returns for the crazed "Hydramatic Woman" a short time later, Walter Horton's "Easy" is one of the finest examples of harmonica tone ever waxed, and Rufus Thomas' two gems in the form of "Bear Cat" and "Tiger Man" will get nods of approval from the masses. What's more, there's Pat Hare's maniacal "I'm Gonna Murder My Baby," with twisted and distorted blues guitar; a cut which foretold the future better than any late-night psychic friend ever could! Earl Hooker, James Cotton, Willie Nix, Doctor Ross, and many more step up to deliver slices of brilliance for those blues-induced sleepwalkers we all know. Classic stuff!
Varese Sarabande Records: www.VareseSarabande.com
Sonny Boy Williamson
Bring Another Half Pint
(Recall/Snapper © 2000 Import)
John Lee "Sonny Boy" Williamson, or Sonny Boy #1 as he's often referred to, traveled from his home in Jackson, TN, north to Chicago, and there, laid down some of the finest songs ever recorded. Throngs of up-and-coming blues bands still take on his classic material nightly, and it's proof-positive that his legend is an enduring one. The 40 sides here, on the Snapper label, offer up many of his best known works, from "Good Morning Little Schoolgirl" and "I Been Dealing With The Devil," to "Stop Breaking Down" and the title track, "Bring Another Half Pint." His tongue-tied vocals, due to a speech impediment, are always a pleasure, while his dry, rasping harmonica was a heavy influence on many, including Little Walter Jacobs, Junior Wells, and others. This is the guy who made the harmonica what it is today in blues, an accepted form of expression. Before Williamson's assaulting attack broke on the Bluebird label decades ago, the harmonica was considered a toy by most, and those who chose it as their meal ticket were frowned upon by 'real musicianers' constantly. Sound quality is exemplary throughout this great set, and it's a sure bet to please harp fans, both young and old. Strongly recommended.
Snapper Records: wwwsnappermusic.com
(MC Records © 2001)
Kim Wilson's latest solo effort, the 'recorded live' set, aptly titled "Smokin' Joint," is a welcome addition to a catalog from one of the world's premier harmonica player/vocalists. Wilson's early days fronting the Fabulous Thunderbirds proved beyond any doubt that this dyed-in-the-wool bluesman was going to be around for the long haul. After some seriously satisfying work for myriad labels, with either the T-Birds, or on his own solo discs, Wilson took two bands on the road and produced this vital set which features Larry Taylor and Richard Innes anchoring the rhythm section throughout. It also sheds light on two guitarists to keep an eye on; Kirk "Eli" Fletcher and Troy Gonyea, both young but exuding more taste and chops than many players twice their age. Billy Flynn and Rusty Zinn, two veteran axe-handlers, get space as well on a number of tracks from a Phoenix show, while Fletcher and Gonyea are aboard from a California club. Wilson pulls out the stops plying jump, soulful R&B, gripping shuffles, and the lowdown styles he's been known for throughout his long career. Little Walter's "Oh Baby" gets a solid working, as does George Smith's "Telephone Blues," and the blazing instrumental title track settles the score for those wondering who's atop the heap of current harp heavyweights. Kim's creativity rivals Walter Jacobs at each turn and his tone is as thick as cigar smoke in a closet, while the cast behind him lays out the riveting grooves for the elder statesman to work from. Playing time is lengthy at well over an hour with excellent sound and it's as close as you can get to being in the room with Kim Wilson until he hits the bricks again. This one gets my vote as one of the best of the year!
MC Records: www.mc-records.com
Go To More Stocking Stuffer Reviews
These reviews are copyright © 2001 by Craig Ruskey, and Blues On Stage at: www.mnblues.com, all rights reserved. Copy, duplication or download prohibited without written permission. For permission to use this review please send an E-mail to Ray Stiles.