William Clarke’s untimely passing in 1996 (scheduled for a relatively routine procedure, he passed away on the operating table at age 45) came just as he seemed poised to take the humble harmonica into uncharted musical territory as one of the instrument’s greatest innovators.
Clarke’s work for Alligator – he released four discs on the label – showed him to be one of the lickin’ stick’s finest practitioners, with monster tone and absolutely killer chops. But his final outing, 1995’s “The Hard Way,” also revealed a restless musical mind determined to explore jazzier territory, all the while maintaining an unwavering commitment to the school of swing.
Liner notes for the posthumously released “Live In Germany” are sparse, but the material and performances would indicate an earlier outing, with the set list taken largely from his first pair of recordings for Alligator.
Accompanied by the underrated John Marx on guitar, Clarke, backed by bassist Willie Brinlee and drummer Eddie Clark, tears through a set that features an astonishing display of technical prowess and sheer musicality.
From “Blowin’ Like Hell,” the set’s raucous opener (Clarke’s theme song of sorts and the titular track of his Alligator debut) to the equally audacious “Lollipop Mama” that brings the evening to a close, the boys swing like mad through a generous almost-hour of pure harmonica heaven. (And that’s not to overlook superb contributions from guitarist Marx, who holds his own quite well in the solo department!). In between are such Clarke standards as his own “Lookin’ To The Future” and “Educated Fool,” along with Muddy chestnuts like “Iodine In My Coffee” and “All Night Long.” Marx takes a vocal turn on a sweetly-swinging “I Cried Last Night,” jazzing it up in a way composer Charles Brown would be proud of
There may be a bit of a budget feel to the disc, but the sound is virtually perfect for a live club recording. The mix is ideal, with Clarke’s harmonica appropriately prominent, and just enough crowd noise from the back to place listeners front and centre for a genuine ‘live’ feeling. It’s spontaneous and raw; no overdubs here to fix things up, just a first-rate working band at the top of their game.
Clarke was, quite simply, one of the finest harmonica players ever to taste the tin sandwich, and he left us far too soon. Thanks go out to his widow, Jeannette Clarke Lodovici, the disc’s producer, for keeping Clarke’s legacy alive - this is a fine document of one of the instrument’s masters in his prime.
This one qualifies as essential listening!