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Alligator Records has released the first 3 CDs in its new budget priced sampler series-Crucial Blues (Jan. 2003). With a suggested U.S. list price of only $7.98 each of these new releases will serve as an inexpensive introduction to the blues for new listeners and a nice compilation of significant recordings for the more seasoned blues fan. Each CD has 12 cuts of all previously released material by Alligator artists from over the past three decades (total playing time is a little less than 50 minutes for the first two CDs and 57 minutes for the Crucial Guitar Blues).
Crucial Chicago Blues (ALCD116)
I will start with this one simply because it was the first one of the three I put into my CD player to listen to. The line-up reads like a "who's who" of modern day Chicago Blues and even though it only features the artists from one label it does offer an excellent cross section of modern day Chicago blues-Luther Allison, Koko Taylor, Junior Wells, Hound Dog Taylor, Son Seals, Carey Bell, Magic Slim, Lonnie Brooks, Pinetop Perkins, Lil' Ed, James Cotton and Fenton Robinson. All household names to avid blues fans and you almost couldn't go wrong with just about anything they've recorded. However, the people at Alligator have selected some gems of songs that we often don't get a chance to hear from these artists.
Songs like "Take It Easy, Baby" with Pinetop Perkins both singing and playing the piano, and Magic Slim's version of "Mama, Talk To Your Daughter" are superb selections that bear repeat listening. And after listening to James Cotton's "23 Hours Too Long" and Fenton Robinson's "I Hear Some Blues Downstairs" you appreciate what a rich blues heritage Chicago has. In many cases listening to a song reminds you of something about the artist you may have forgotten and prompts you to go dig out the original album that the song came from for more in-depth listening.
Crucial Harmonica Blues (ALCD115)
This CD, as the title indicates, features some of the best harmonica players who have recorded for any label (not just Alligator) during the past 3 decades-Charlie Musselwhite, Big Walter Horton, Billy Boy Arnold, Sonny Terry, Junior Wells with Billy Branch, Delbert McClinton, Phil Wiggins of Cephas & Wiggins, Little Charlie's Rick Estrin, James Cotton, Carey Bell, Sugar Blue and William Clarke.
The sublime "Have Mercy" played by Big Walter Horton and Carey Bell is almost worth the price of admission all by itself. And listening to Sonny Terry's hoopin' and hollerin' on "Sonny's Whoopin' The Doop" transports me back in time to the Whole Coffee house in the basement of Coffman Memorial Union on the University of Minnesota campus where I first saw Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee back in the early 70s. And it's a toss up as to who is trying harder to blow the reeds out of his harp-James Cotton on "Superharp," Sugar Blue on "One More Mile To Go" or William Clarke on "Blowin' Like Hell." You be the judge.
Crucial Guitar Blues (ALCD114)
The list of outstanding blues guitar players seems to grow longer every year so to feature just 12 on this disc may leave some wanting more. This collection of guitar masters may omit some of your favorites but you'd be hard pressed to disagree with any who are represented here-Luther Allison, Michael Burks, Coco Montoya, Albert Collins, Little Charlie Baty, Tinsley Ellis, Roy Buchanan, Son Seals, Dave Hole, Lonnie Mack with Stevie Ray Vaughan, Johnny Winter and Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown. That's some impressive list of guitar slingers in anyone's book and like the previous 2 CDs in this series; the song selection is not what you would normally expect. Alligator has pulled out little gems that feature each artist displaying his own unique talent and style-very impressive. There are some classics here from Lonnie Mack ("Double Whammy" with SRV), Roy Buchanan ("Country Boogie") and Johnny Winter ("I Smell Trouble") as well as more recent nuggets by Michael Burks ("Heartless") and Coco Montoya ("Same Old Thing"). This album, like the other two in the series, leaves you wanting to hear more when you have finished your listen.
These first three releases in the Crucial Blues Series serve as a good introduction to the blues for new listeners and offer a brief but excellent overview of some important songs and blues musicians who have recorded for the Alligator label since its inception in the early 1970's. The CD jacket has minimal information but does contain a brief synopsis of the original album the song came from (along with a picture of the album cover). So this is a good starting point for the new listener (with suggestions of where to find more if you like what you hear). For the more seasoned listener it also offers an excellent mixture of some of the best in blues from one of the premiere blues labels of the past 3 decades. Nothing fancy here in the packaging but the musical content is pure blues gold.
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