Pairing John Lee Hooker with a band often became a lesson in futility for record producers. Hooker's music was deeply rooted in the Delta tradition where chord changes occurred when the singer, usually accompanying himself on guitar, felt they were necessary, often falling outside what is regarded the norm, a 12 bar progression. Vee Jay, Chicago's only competitor to the Chess label, managed strong success with Hooker in the 1950's by placing him with a band led by Eddie Taylor, himself from the Delta. John Lee had worked for the Chess label in the 1950's and found himself back in familiar territory in 1966, this time with Eddie Burns, Lafayette Leake, Fred Below, and an unknown bass player, in tow. Burns was a guitarist who worked with Hooker in Detroit and understood the importance of following closely to his abrupt chord changes, while the rest of the outfit was comprised of sensitive, veteran players.
During the 1960's, a large number of long-retired artists found themselves back in the spotlight, performing at festivals and coffee houses, due to the surprise interest in their early styles from folk fans who had been listening to Bob Dylan and others. Chess tried to corner this new market by issuing LP's bearing titles which read, "The Real Folk Blues." While the largest part of these issues were collections of singles recorded years before and compiled for record albums, Hooker was recording new music, in 1966, some of which would land in the Folk Blues series.
The first nine tracks from this 80-minute CD appeared on Hooker's "The Real Folk Blues" album and find him in muscular form. His vocals are strong and motivated, while his guitar work retains all the nuances of his Mississippi background; the slurred leads, the repeating hammer-ons, and the grinding chords. "Peace Lovin' Man" sports a slow, stroll groove, while "Stella Mae" rumbles along a shuffling pattern, and "I Put My Trust In You" idles so far behind-the-beat, it seems to stand still. "I'm In The Mood" and "One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer" were both cut a number of times during Hooker's long career, and both find potent success here with the sympathetic backing band holding the foundation together while remaining unobtrusive. "The Waterfront" finds the Hook alone in a more pensive moment than usual, his voice absolutely spellbinding, and his guitar work more refined. The second nine tracks didn't appear until 1991, when they were finally issued as "More Real Folk Blues: The Missing Album," so it's nice to have everything together. Perhaps thumbing his nose at a popular folk song of the time, Hooker chills the senses on "This Land Is Nobody's Land," and in another lightly shrouded cut, he tackles "Mustang Sally & GTO." Lafayette Leake's piano work rolls effortlessly through "Deep Blue Sea," and the rocking "Lead Me," and he sits at the organ for an old Delta gem, "Catfish." Although Chris Morris' liner notes remark at this being "an extended meditation inspired by" Muddy Waters' Chess side, "Rollin' Stone," it harkens back to "Catfish Blues" by Robert Petway, and beyond. Hooker and the Chicago band also turn in a stellar version of the Otis Rush gem, "I Can't Quit You Baby," and John Lee revamps both "Want Ad Blues" and "House Rent Blues," the latter proved to be the springboard for George Thorogood's success in the 1980's.
This could fall under the "essential" category, depending on how much John Lee Hooker one has, but whether your collection boasts a wealth of JLH, or the perfunctory few, this should be welcomed. The tandem guitars of Hooker and Burns simply blaze at times, nearing levels of telepathy as both play distinctly like themselves; Hook throwing hammer-ons out in clusters while Burns tears across the frets playing single string leads, and both weave seamlessly in and out of each other's work. All the while, Lafayette Leake offers instinctive keyboard support and Fred Below announces his presence by doing what he did best, simply drilling the two-and-four beats into those around him. www.universalchronicles.com will provide more information. While there's a glut of John Lee Hooker music available, this CD will supply plenty of interest for those who prefer their blues raw and unadorned by the over-production ingredient, all too common in some blues today. This is nerve-jangling stuff!
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