Of the multitude of blues harmonica players from Chicago's golden era, Big Walter Horton stands as perhaps the premier master of rich tone, and it mattered not if he was blowing amplified or acoustic. While never a frontman of note when compared to Little Walter, Billy Boy Arnold, or Snooky Pryor, Horton's style was immediately recognizable in a solid variety of sideman efforts and the rather small catalog of his own sessions. This set, from the Knickerbocker Cafe in RI, and likely Horton's very last recording (he died in 1981), finds him backed by a young Sugar Ray & The Bluetones. This cast of characters should need little introduction, as all have gone on to make considerable marks in the annals of blues, but as a quick primer the band consisted of Sugar Ray Norcia taking the fore with potent harp and blues-soaked vocals, Ronnie 'Youngblood' Horvath (better known today as Ronnie Earl) ably handling the guitar slot, Little Anthony Geraci holding down the piano chair, and a rhythm section of Mudcat Ward's bass and Ola Mae Dixon's relaxed, yet spot-on drumming.
The Bluetones kick off the party with a bang as they effortlessly roll through Billy Boy Arnold's "I Cried For You" showing just what a tight outfit they truly were in the early days. Norcia's harp is thick and blasting while the crew delivers a hearty groove and they slow the pace back for a blistering "Lord Knows I Tried" where Ronnie offers a smoldering and lengthy guitar break packed with intense flurries and passionate bursts. They turn in a crunching version of "Country Girl," with Norcia and Horvath echoing the interplay between Junior Wells and Buddy Guy and Big Walter steps in beginning with "Walter's Shuffle" as he leans headlong into the groove serving quick notice that he was truly a king of tone. For "Little Boy Blue," the band holds a slow and steady beat offering plenty of space for Horton's creativity, then "It's Not Easy" recalls an early single Big Walter cut in 1953 with Jimmy DeBerry in Memphis. Instead of a slow boil, this version chugs along at a quicker tempo still showing much of utter brilliance on the original Sun 78, and for "Two Old Maids," the bristling snap and dynamics of everyone involved deserves note. Ronnie quietly slips into an Earl Hooker/Robert Nighthawk mode for "What's On Your Worried Mind" with incredible slide and searing single notes blending perfectly with Walter's heartfelt vocal, and things close on the muscular "Walter's Swing," another solid shuffle.
At 52 minutes long, it's certainly shorter than one would hope, but the bonus tracks at the beginning are a nice addition and a much better fit than the out-of-place Left Hand Frank cut on the original vinyl offering from some two decades ago. The Bluetones, while considerably young when this was recorded (on a portable 8-track machine), were more than up to the task and show just how dedicated they were; by studying the masters who set the standard before them, they managed to recreate the feel of a Chicago tavern in the seaport neighborhood of Westerly. Big Walter Horton is simply stunning here, and regardless of his better than sixty years of age at the time, he sounds as young and vital as he did in the early 1950's. Horton's benchmark recordings have often been those where he offered his efforts as a sideman to others, but his remarkable tone, creative drive, and youthful spirit are all clearly evident. Recommended.
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