Alligator's deluxe editions are really best-of compilations, with a few perks; some unreleased tracks, old photos and a booklet insert that folds out to a 9 X 14 poster--all serve as great overview introductions to the featured artists. The latest batch of three goes back to the beginnings of the label, in 1971. Company head, Bruce Iglauer, was then working for Bob Koesters Delmark label and a dedicated blues fan/promoter. He was knocked out hearing Hound Dog Taylor, and tried to convince Koester to record him--but Koester thought him a little too raw and derivative, so Iglauer wound up starting his own label with some inheritance money. He did car-trunk distribution, reached out to the rock audience and made something of a smash with Taylors first album. He left Delmark a half a year later to devote full time to his label, one still thriving today.
The Taylor CD draws from all four of his albums, cut between 1971-74--he died of cancer in December 1975. All feature the heavily distorted, funk driven slide guitar of Taylor, aided by 2nd guitarist Brewer Phillips, who tuned his strings down low to play propulsive walking bass lines. Add the accelerating drumming of Ted Harvey and you've got a funky trio just right for some serious dance grooves. Taylor doesn't have Elmore James clipped/intense vocal style down as well as he has the guitar work and though he lacks Elmore's finesse, he makes up for it with sheer energy. Fittingly, the set starts off with 3 James numbers--fairly verbatim readings, but with an added veneer of grit. Taylor adds his hit number "Give Me Back My Wig", covers Ray Charles "What I Say", and the standard "Rock Me", all with the kind of Juke Joint feel that Fat Possum label covets today. There are a couple of instrumentals featuring the stinging lead of Phillips--nothing fancy, just pile driver force with a tone Keith Richard would envy. Taylor and Phillips have a lockstep grip on a groove, and they twine and lace with ease--despite a volatile relationship. (Taylor shot Phillips with his .22, they reunited in the hospital days before Taylor's death.) Check out "Phillips Theme". That's one of the five (out of fifteen tracks) from live sessions originally for FM broadcast, they all reek with ambiance. Two of these are previously unreleased, "Ain't It Lonesome" is a spoken-word narrative that really calls down the empty-house blues atmosphere in a poignant, touchingly moody performance. All together the album is a fitting sampler of the Dog's work. Taylor usually started his sets by calling, "Lets have some fun" and laughed a lot thruout the night. He once said "I can't play for shit but when I die they'll all say, he sure sounded good!" Sure enuf, he was right...
William Clarke was king of the West Coast school of harpmen, mixing the drive of Chicago Blues with the chordal complexity and layers of swing jazz and jump blues. After years of working as a machinist during the week and gigging on weekends, he went full time into music when he was 36. He self produced five albums before signing up with Alligator in 1990--he cut four albums for them before his death in November 1996. In person, he was an intense performer, fronting a band that looked like out-patients with serious intentions. He was noted for his over-stuffed suits and tendency to drop to his knees during solos and beat out emphasis on the stage with his hands. He learned his way about the chromatic harp hanging out and partnering with George Harmonica Smith, a Muddy Water's band alumni who had relocated to California.
All but two of the sixteen titles here are Clarke originals, his lyrics mine the usual stock of blues, his vocals are serviceable, it's his playing and arrangements that make him stand out but above all, his tone--fat, deep and wide-- octave blocked chords make for a horn section sound on many numbers. A lot of his lead lines could easily be played on sax as well. Check out "It's Been A Long Time", a slow-burn blues and the instrumental "The Boss" an up tempo ride. "Fishing Blues" (which won a W C Handy "song of the year" award) opens with a riff quoted from Charley Parker's "Yardbird Suite", other jazz references are laced thruout his albums, six tracks here have a full horn section.
The three unreleased tracks come from 1986 and 1995. "Lose Your Life" works off a Bo Diddley riff, "Easter Bunny Boogie" is a novelty riff, "I Got A Feeling" closes the album with a mellow Memphis soul groove. There's only one instrumental, 1994's "Blowin The Family Jewels"-- personally I would've picked the title track from his debut Alligator side, "Blowing Like Hell", but "Jewels" has cooking energy. Clarke was the best exponent of this muscular riff style. He's missed--and this collection is a good representation of his studio work.
Katie Webster was a 15 year old session pianist working in the studios of Goldband and Excello Records back in the fifties. She appeared on numerous recordings with Lightning Slim, Slim Harpo, zydeco king Clifton Chenier, as well as Phil Phillips' R&B classic, "Sea Of Love". In 1964 she joined Otis Redding's touring band, and spent three years travelling with the show. In 1967, she opted out of the next tour because she was eight months pregnant--not long after Redding was killed in a plane crash.
Webster, for all intents and purposes quit performing until the early 80's when she was rediscovered and went on the Euro-tour blues circuit, known as The Swamp Boogie Queen. She signed with Alligator in 1988 and this compilation is drawn from her 3 albums there. Webster is a two-fisted blues shouter with some heavy gospel influences, the program here is a mixed bag of soul and blues. There are a couple of "association" numbers--Redding's "Try A Little Tenderness" and the Phillips tune, also a couple of raunchy boasts; "I'm Bad" and "A Little Meat On The Side." On the Redding tune she displays some sensitive vocal dynamics, throughout she plays some pumping piano, especially on the instrumental "C Q Boogie". There are a few guest artists, but they don't get in the way; Kim Wilson plays harp on one number and duets on another, Robert Cray and Bonnie Raitt turn up playing guitar on a track apiece. One of the two previously unreleased numbers, Ray Charles "Hallelujah, I Just Love Him So" is a solo piano workout, it's a dynamite track.
Due to a recent stroke, Webster only has use of her right hand and is nearly blind, but she still performs at occasional festivals. If this set is any indication, she's well worth checking out.
This review is copyright © 1999 by Tony Glover, and Blues On Stage, all rights reserved.