Friday, January 8, 2010

A Bit More Chi-Town Blues

Chicago Blues
A Living History

Raisin Music RM1003

I thought that I'd put my two cents in on the music that I ran the promo material about last month. I'm not in the habit of touting a release before I have a chance to listen to the music, but the fact that the CD was up for a Grammy, that the links to the youtube vids were available as bait, and that the artists involved would lay down quality stuff enticed me into promoting it here on the blog. Now, since receiving the two disc set the day after Christmas, I have a chance to affirm that these guys live up to my expectations and sling some solid gold Chi-Town blues.

Lurrie Bell, Billy Boy Arnold, John Primer, and Billy Branch have been the torch bearers for the genre for quite some time now. They all literally grew up eating, breathing, and absorbing the music that exists on this release, which is a tribute to those that defined the genre. The music follows a chronological path (disc one covers 1940-55 and disc two 1955 to present) beginning with Sonny Boy Williamson I's (John Lee Williamson), logically covered by Billy Boy, who idolized the bluesman as a kid and wanted to follow in his footsteps. Arnold captures the essence of the blues harmonica's first real star. He knows this stuff, and he put out his own fine tribute to SBWI this past year. He'd be the first to tell you that he never developed the technical mastery of the instrument that his hero had, but he ain't no slouch. His vocals throughout he proceedings are the best that I've heard from him in recent years as he also covers Tampa Red, Big Bill Broonzy, and Memphis Slim. These cuts exude the '50s Chicago vibe that the originals did. That can also be contributed to producer Larry Skoller and the additional musical backing by Billy Flynn (guitar), Johnny Iquana (keyboards), Felton Crews (bass), and Kenny "Beedy" Eyes Smith (drums); who all know their way around a Chicago block or two. I was especially impressed with Iquana's work on Memphis Slim USA and his solo instrumental cover of Maceo Merriweather's Chicago Breakdown, which allows him to crank on the 88s. Also, his swirling organ really sets up Otis Rush's minor keyed My Love Will Never Die for Lurrie Bell's impassioned vocals.

Of course Billy Boy Arnold's own star was shining in the '60s, as his tunes (written in the '50s) were being cover by the likes of the Yardbirds with a young Eric Clapton on guitar. He covers his hit, I Wish You Would, that has a timeless message and his signature harmonica riffing. Even though he never achieved the same level of acclaim for his blues harping, I guarantee you that his harp licks were some of the first to be copied by rock and rollers. His work on this disc is a testament to his importance as much as it is for Muddy, the Wolf, or Little Walter.

Speaking of Little Walter, no release claiming to be a tribute to the heyday of Chicago Blues can overlook the master blaster's contribution, and Billy Branch blasts his take on Hate To See You Go. Once the self-proclaimed new kids on the block, Branch is now quite the veteran Chicago bluesman. Seems like he's led his Sons Of Blues band forever, and one can still catch his live performance just about any day of the week around the Windy City. He's developed his own blues harp style, but he is somewhat the vocal chameleon here and nails LW's vocal timbre perfectly, and works his harp around Walter's notes admirably. He does more of the same on Junior Wells' classic, Hoodoo Man Blues, on which I'd swear is Wells doing the singing if I didn't know better. Billy Flynn does the Buddy Guy parts on the tune. Flynn stays out of the way throughout most of the proceedings, as a good Chi-Town ensemble man should, but they turn him loose on Earl Hooker's Hookin' It, and he lets his wah-wah out of its cage and smokes the meat. Branch's take on James Cotton's One More Mile is as funky as the original.

I've been a John Primer fan for a long, long time. He's always been true to his blues roots and has never wavered in keeping it real. Much like Branch did with the Wells' number, Primer sounds eerily like Howlin' Wolf on Moanin' At Midnight and Muddy on Feel Like Going Home and Sugar Sweet. He also lopes along perfectly on Jimmy Reed's Can't Stand To See You Go with contributing harp from Matthew Skoller. I have a couple of releases by Skoller and he always places some inventive riffs in the context of playing blues, but he keeps it traditional on this one and mimics Sonny Boy Williamson II's tone without being slavish on Your Imagination, which features Primer's spot-on vocal adaptations also.

I've mentioned Eddie C. Campbell a time or two on this blog, and it was on Campbell's King of the Jungle that Lurrie Bell debut his guitar chops on record (the album also featured his dad Carey). I've followed his well documented up and down career since then. He's really on the upswing right now and plays and sings with intensity on his tributes beginning with Elmore Jame's I Believe, which has the variant Dust My Broom theme going. Lurrie doesn't try to mimic James, he just wails away vocally and lets Flynn slip on the slide. He really cranks up the vocal chords on Otis Rush's My Love Will Never Die, which to me has always been a vocal showcase more than a guitar pull. There's some big singing shoes to fill when tackling that song, and Bell steps up and belts it with the emotion that it takes to do the song justice. He shouts out Buddy Guy's Damn Right I've Got The Blues with the same intensity. Of course, on a release such as this, the selection has to be selective, but if I'd been Lurrie, I would have insisted on the inclusion of a Carey Bell song, who was as instrumental in the advancement of the Chicago sound as anyone on the program.

Even though they include a cover of Three O'Clock Blues to illustrate B.B.King's influence on those Westside cats such as Rush, Buddy Guy, and Magic Sam, I don't think anyone will confuse him as being associated with Chicago. The author of the tune, Lowell Fulson, did record for Chess, but he came by way of the West Coast/T-Bone style of playing. Anyway, Mike Avery can sing this stuff very well. I'll admit that I've heard of Avery, but I'm not too familiar with him. The man can sing, though, as he proves it here and on Magic Sam's Out of Bad Luck. His lack of celebrity keeps him from being marqueed as one of the featured artist, but he's legit in my book--and he's a cousin of Magic Sam's, so it's in his genes.

The other non-featured feature is Carlos Johnson, who I also know very little about. He's represents the contemporary side of things by smokin' the strings on John Lee Hooker's The Healer and the aforementioned Damn Right I've Got The Blues. He sings on the former. He knows his book of blues/rock. I'd quibble with including Hooker on a Chi-Town tribute, because he created his own genre which fits nowhere, really, but he did record for Chess (and EVERYBODY else), so let ride.

If Chicago Blues floats your boat, here it is--played by those that play TODAY in tribute to those that played it YESTERDAY. These guys carried this show on the road and I only wish that it had made it somewhere close to Houston. They play this stuff with conviction. 'Nuff for now.


Joe's Blues Blog said...

Johnny Iguana is great. He played with Jr Wells for a number of years.

Not only is Matthew Skoller is fantastic harp player and singer, he's also a fantastic song writer.

Carlos Johnson is one bad ass dude. Carlos has been around the Chicago scene for quite a while. He did a bunch of time as a member of the Sons of Blues. He's a killer vocalist!

Billy Branch is the real deal stuff. I think he's one of the most under-appreciated guys out there. If Billy Branch can't play a tune on the harp, it can't be done. You may find a harp players as good as him, but you won't find one better.

Anonymous said...


Ricky Bush said...

Hey Joe--I'm sure that I have recordings in my collection with Iguana's talents on display and never noticed, but he really helps make this disc work.

I can't think off-hand which Skoller CD I have, but it was chock full of his original take on the blues and his original riffs and licks on the harp.

And, Branch has been a favorite for quite some time. I think under-appreciated is an understatement. You know, the first time that I really listened to him was on Johnny Winter's Guitar Slinger back in the early '80s. JW surrounded himself with Chi-Town guys, and Branch played smoking harp licks throughout the proceedings.