It has been nearly two years since Luther Allison's sudden and premature death (on Aug. 12, 1997). No fewer than three releases have recently hit the market (make that perhaps "black market" in one case), underscoring what a loss the blues world suffered. Add these to the more than twenty releases on numerous labels done by Luther that have previously been distributed.
Foremost amongst these is Alligator Record's "Live In Chicago" -- a double disc that hit the bins almost to the date of the second anniversary of Luther's death as well as what would have been Luther's sixtieth birthday (August 17). I'll safely predict this release -- featuring Luther's appearance at the 1995 Chicago Blues Festival -- will immediately shoot to the top of the blues charts -- and probably will have done so by the time this is published. Rightfully so -- but more on that in a minute.
Although perhaps a bit obscure and/or of questionable lineage, TWO other releases have documented what is reported to be Luther's last recorded work -- a performance at the Barrymore Theater in Madison, Wisconsin on July 10, 1997. This reportedly was the day Luther received the diagnosis of the cancer which left him dead in just over a month. At this juncture, it must be referenced that Luther's last public performance was the following day at the Minnesota Zoo Amphitheater in Apple Valley [put a link to MN Blues review of this concert here]. Is there a tape of that somewhere? Since it is a regular -- and generally accepted -- practice for sound techs to record most jobs for "technical review," I'm guessing there must be. Somebody let me know!
I really don't feel the need to say too much about Luther's work to readers of a blues newspaper [WEB Site]. He was well known to area blues fans, having appeared regularly in this area since the early 1970s (perhaps even as early as 1969?) before spending about fifteen years largely as something of an expatriate in Europe. Luther returned to the US the year before his landmark 1995 Chicago Blues Fest appearance in support of the first of three Alligator recordings released within three years (starting with "Soul Fixin' Man" in 1994). He was at the top of his game, and even before his death had garnered almost every meaningful blues award. He was managed by Blue Sky Artists of Minneapolis, and thus had some special local connection. His "backup" band was amongst the best going. He was a blistering guitarist and soulful vocalist who regularly put on spectacularly intense performances. He often played three or four hour shows when he no doubt had contracted only for the standard set(s). These live recordings, of course, capture that spirit more than the studio recordings (which are intense in their own right). The material on "Live In Chicago" and the live recording(s) from Madison are accurate examples of the excellent state of Luther Allison's music at those points in time.
Disk one of the "Live In Chicago" contains most -- but not quite all -- of Luther's performance at the Chicago Blues Festival on Friday, June 3, 1995. This was heralded as something of a homecoming for Luther, as he had moved to Chicago (from Arkansas) as a teenager and had become part of the City's blues scene before leaving for Europe. References to this "homecoming" are, in fact, made by Luther on stage. His band consisted of the James Solberg Band: James on Guitar; Ken Faltinson on bass; Mike Vlahakis on Keyboards and Rob Stupka on Drums. These are the same personnel with Luther at the Madison show two years later (and most shows during this time period). The Memphis Horns (Wayne Jackson and Andrew Love) played with Luther at the Blues Festival (but not at Madison). The Blues Fest songs are: "Soul Fixin' Man; Cherry Red Wine; Move From The Hood; Bad Love; Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is; Big City; Give Me Back My Wig; It Hurts Me Too" and an evening-ending finale when Luther came back on stage to join Otis Rush and his band with Eddie Campbell in a medley of "Gambler's Blues/Sweet Black Angel."
Disc two includes: "Party Time; All The Kings Horses; What Have I Done Wrong?; Walking Papers and Think With Your Heart" recorded at Buddy Guy's Legends on November 4, 1995. J. Mattes was on drums instead of Rob Stupka. It is filled-out with recordings made at the Zoo Bar in Lincoln, Nebraska on May 7, 1997. These are: "What's Going On In My Home?; Will It Ever Change?; You're Gonna Make Me Cry" and "Everything's Gonna Be All Right." Willie Hayes was on drums that set.
The Madison, Wisconsin show at the Barrymore Theater on July 10, 1997, is a bit of a curiosity. The concert was sponsored by "Triple M Radio," 105.5 FM, Madison, as its sixth anniversary party and included acts other than Luther. At least parts of the show were broadcast (later, I think). This was also a homecoming for Luther, as Madison was his adopted US home (a fact Luther acknowledges on stage). It was Alligator Records' founder and President Bruce Iglauer's fiftieth birthday -- also acknowledged by Luther on stage as Bruce was in the audience (perhaps ironic since the birthday greeting is included only in the "import" CD that possibly rips-off Alligator). Add to this the facts that Luther had just been diagnosed with terminal lung and brain cancer that day AND that this seems to have turned out to be his last recorded concert, and we have something of a convergence.
The Barrymore show (or at least parts of it) has been released on two different discs. One of these is "Love The People" distributed by the Luther Allison Madison Memorial fund. It is a five-song CD and includes live versions of "Will It Ever Change," "Low Down And Dirty," "It Hurts Me Too" and "You Can't Always Get What You Want" from the Barrymore show, and, from Luther's acoustic album "Hand Me Down My Moonshine" the song "Meet Me In My Own Hometown" done with his son Bernard. The proceeds from this CD will be used to fund a Luther Allison memorial in Madison. This is distributed with the authorization of the Allison estate, Alligator Records and everybody else that may have a claim to the material.
Apparently lacking the authorization given "Love The People" but including the balance of the Barrymore concert (I think -- the liner notes are a bit ambiguous for obvious reasons) is "Madison Blues." Called an "import," this double disc release includes all of the Barrymore cuts on "Love The People" except "Low Down And Dirty." What happened to that cut? I thought "The Madison Blues" was the complete Barrymore Luther show. The additional Barrymore cuts are: "Comin' Back Home; Living In The House OF The Blues; What Have I Done Wrong; Standing In The Middle Of The Road; Walking Cane; Cherry Red Wine" and "Serious As A Heart Attack." About ninety-five minutes of music from the Barrymore show -- plus an interview with Luther of about six minutes -- said (by the sketchy liner notes) to be one of his last.
My inquiries confirm what is reasonably obvious from reviewing the packaging -- "The Madison Blues" is probably a flat-out bootleg! Not a legitimate foreign release the import of which might be legally objectionable or just a homemade CD burner copy of a concert tape, but a mass-produced (in some unknown quantity) project with glossy liner notes and even a picture of Luther painted on the discs! No clue as to who produced or distributes the package. That, in its own right, amazes me. When is the last time you heard of a bootleg of a contemporary blues musician being made and sold? Sure, there have always been cases of blatant copyright infringement, but that is almost always done very obviously -- more like outright theft than an "underground" conspiracy. The fact this even happened to the Barrymore show underscores its importance. Maybe Alligator (or whoever is entitled to the rights to it) will get it out "legally" before long?
O.K., I know selling a bootleg is illegal and everyone involved in the for-gain distribution can perhaps be implicated. Listening to a bootleg is not illegal nor is playing one on the radio -- at least if all copyright association memberships are paid up (although record company people might dispute that premise). I know this sort of infringement deprives record companies of dollars -- and artists of pennies. This is largely a political battle in this day of high-tech, with many musicians themselves coming down on the side of "free distribution." How many people would, after all, be likely to buy a bootleg without already owning all commercially available material put out by an artist? Enough said on that point. Back to the music.
ALL of the material -- both on "Live In Chicago" and from the Barrymore show -- is very good. Of the Alligator release, the Chicago Blues Festival recording is more spirited than that done at Buddy's or the Zoo. The "electricity" of an appearance at such a prominent blues event is evident even to a listener of the recording. There is a continuity and buildup present. Even though there was a bit of editing, the flow of the blues fest set is apparent. The songs seem to have been kept in the same order as performed. Things slow down a bit once you get to Buddy's and the Zoo. These recordings are both just smaller parts of a bigger show, and perhaps are presented out-of-context, as well. Still good material -- especially when you consider that price-wise the second disc of the Alligator release is practically a throw-in. Technically, this release is excellent, avoiding nearly all of the pitfalls of live recording. In fact, since apparently a cut or two of Luther's Blues Fest set was omitted for technical reason, this aspect may have been over done. All in all, this should probably be considered an "essential" recording.
The Barrymore recordings reveal a much looser performance than that at the Chicago Blues Fest. It was two years later, perhaps reflecting some maturing by Luther and his band. There is more "political commentary" within the Barrymore performance. More interaction with the crowd. This show is probably more representative of a typical Luther show from that era than a major gig like the Chicago Blues Fest or some snippets from Buddy's and/or the Zoo (the Lincoln Zoo). I've previously mentioned some of the unusual things converging at the Barrymore. The obvious thought is that perhaps Luther was playing like a man who knew he had no tomorrow. A farewell to his hometown. "Coming Back Home" to quote the song that leads off "The Madison Blues" CDs and seems to have been the Barrymore opener.
Of the two releases with the Barrymore material, "The Madison Blues" is much more complete. It seems like a more-or-less intact recording of the show (save the "Low Down and Dirty" omission noted above). "Love The People" does not claim to be (nor is it) an accurate reflection of the entire concert. It is a few out takes. Since you probably won't be able to find a copy of "The Madison Blues" -- and may be hesitant about buying one if you do (if the legalities don't get to you the "black market" pricing might!) -- "Love The People" will likely be the only readily available recording of the Barrymore show -- for the time being, at least.
Technically, the production of "Love The People" is a notch above "The Madison Blues." It is as professional as "Live In Chicago" -- not surprising, as it was mastered and edited by Bruce Iglauer himself. The quality of "The Madison Blues" is nonetheless very good for a live recording. The occasionally slightly hollow sound of the vocals (particularly during "stage dialogue") tells me that if nothing else a different mix was done which left in more of the "crowd ambiance" -- if the same master was used as for "Love The People." "The Madison Blues" sounds too good to be a "stealth" field recording but perhaps it is.
You can find "Live In Chicago" anywhere that sells blues records. "Love The People" and "The Madison Blues" may only be available "over the counter" in the Madison area -- and the availability of the later may be doubtful. Try calling downtown Madison Record Stores that might feature "imports." You may be well advised to whisper when asking about "The Madison Blues." "Love The People" can be mail-ordered (or at least could be) along with other fund raising items as follows (you'd be real smart to check availability): "Love The People" is $12, a Luther & Bernard Allison Madison Memorial T-shirt is $10, a Limited Edition Lithograph is $10, "A Legend Never Dies" Bumper Sticker is $2, (add $3 postage/handling for any order). Check/Money order to C. Brown, P. O. Box 258, Oxford WI 53952.
There is a host of Luther info on the WEB. What follows are some good starting points:
This review is copyright © 1999 by Mark Halverson, and Blues On Stage, all rights reserved.