Like a phoenix from the ashes, 8 Hands On 88 Keys picks up solidly from where Heavy Timbre left off, perhaps intentionally, perhaps not. This time, four stalwart grinders gathered in the November cold in 2001 to deliver near 50 minutes of driving blues and boogie. Putting the talents of Pinetop Perkins, Detroit Junior, Erwin Helfer, and Barrelhouse Chuck in the studio proves not only a highly rewarding thought, but a refreshing look at where piano music stands at present.
Barrelhouse Chuck, also featured on Prescription For The Blues, the latest Sirens release, gets the introductory honors with a drilling take of Sunnyland Slim's It's You Baby, and while he manages to thunder along in Slim's piano style, his vocals simply chill the senses as he effortlessly nails the falsetto whoop that became a recognized feature of Albert Luandrew's recordings. The slow and deliberate Rooster's Blues shows just how much Chuck has taken in through osmosis and by sitting at the side of his esteemed teachers for many years, and his completely natural vocal phrasing appears alongside Erwin Helfer's crippling piano for Pinetop's Blues, then he's joined by Detroit Junior's piano chores for Roosevelt Sykes' Miss Ida B. Detroit Junior hands in his own gripping I'm So Unhappy and the lazy walk felt in Ella, a lighthearted and stunning instrumental feature. Junior also tackles a traditional Staggerlee to great effect and then is supported by Helfer's piano for Jimmy Witherspoon's Ain't Nobody's Business. Helfer offers up two-fisted delight in Stop Time Boogie and for 4 O'Clock Blues, he drops in a shimmering four-and-a-half minutes of slow passion with jarring results. Pinetop Perkins, although in his eighties, shows little sign of slowing down as he handles the four final tracks assisted by Helfer for Ivory Joe Hunter's I Almost Lost My Mind, and then 'Top takes the piano bench alone for a wonderful take on Memphis Slim's Grinder Man Blues, J.B. Lenoir's pounding How Much More, and Leroy Carr's classic, How Long Blues.
Pinetop Perkins is well-known from his years with Muddy Waters and The Legendary Blues Band, and well-documented through recording sessions, but while Detroit Junior has a lengthy history and background on Chicago's blues scene, he's been criminally under-recorded, so it's a treat to hear his wonderful talents again. Erwin Helfer has been active for decades and even though in his sixties now, he shows absolutely no age or diminishing skills, and Barrelhouse Chuck might well be the lesser known of everyone here, but his combination of gripping piano work and stellar vocals deserve mention of the highest order. Thanks to the Sirens label, we can all enjoy current piano blues and boogie of the finest quality as well as delight in spellbinding journeys through the past.
Hopefully, Steven Dolins will continue his efforts in documenting Chicago piano. These discs are a labor of love, not only for him, but for the artists his label represents. He does plan on releasing a few discs each year and if these four are any indication of what is to come, we all have an awful lot to look forward to.
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This review is copyright © 2002 by Craig Ruskey, and Blues On Stage at: www.mnblues.com, all rights reserved. Copy, duplication or download prohibited without written permission.
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