A blues primer

MusicPosted by kevin Mon, February 16, 2009 23:04:56

So, I get an email from a friend….

‘I know its strange to email you at this time but sitting in a blues bar in Chicago and thought of you – fantastic I have a new appreciation’

And these, gentle reader, is a fantastic email to get, as it gives me a very easy excuse for a blog, and a chance to write about probably the most under-valued and misunderstood music around these days.

Almost 30 years ago, I wandered into a record shop in Edinburgh, all new wave attitude and stupid haircut, and heard some music that just completely blew me away. I had a related discussion with Mrs Emu about this a few nights ago; where she claimed that there was something about sound systems in record shops that makes music sound great, whereas I believe that there are just sussed people in charge of the music. Whatever, this was fantastic – it was ‘Boom Boom Boom’ by John Lee Hooker, and I did something that I’ve only ever done that once – I went up to the counter and asked for a copy of whatever was playing. Now, slightly unfortunately this was the ‘Blues Brothers’ soundtrack, so my next few years were spent trying to backtrack from that to the source of this fantastic music, and that in turn meant some pretty challenged purchases, but it was a reasonably entertaining journey.

Years later, and a bit more up to speed on what was what in the Blues canon, I ordered an Elmore James album from my local HMV. I happened to know the manager there, and when I went in to pick it up, I asked if I could play a couple of tracks through the sound system. (Thereby, incidentally, proving both mine & Mrs E’s theories to be correct.) Now, Elmore James is an artist who you just have to listen to. I could go on about why he is so fantastic at some length, and I may well do just that in a future blog, so to hear him thumping out throughout the shop was something pretty special. But not nearly as special as the woman who rushed up to the desk….”That music – I’ve never heard anything like it before – where can I get a copy?”.

And so it is with some sorts of music. It’s a pretty good feeling to be able to share it with people, so, in the style of Hi Fidelity, here’s a top 5 blues artists you really, really ought to own. Note that this concentrates on Chicago blues, we could go down to the delta, but that will have to wait for now…

  1. Muddy Waters – has an astonishing history – the Father of the Blues, kept Chess records alive, inspired the British Blues revival in the 60’s, worked with Sunnyland Slim, Howlin’ Wolf, Big Bill Broonzy, gave Chuck Berry his first break…so he was a pretty influential sort of fellow. And in 1977 he recorded ‘Hard Again’, with James Cotton and Johnny Winter. Recorded it in 2 days indeed. And, in my opinion, you’ll never hear a harder, more perfect blues album. If you don’t own it, buy it. If you do own it, take it down to your local record shop and get them to play it back to you and see what happens.
  2. Elmore James – could play the slide guitar like no-one else before or since. His technical genius owed a lot to Hawaiian influences, and in addition the two great complimenting factors were his screaming, almost falsetto voice, and his band – the Broomdusters. You’ll be hard pressed to find a tighter backing band, and it’s a huge shame that EJ and the Broomdusters never found the fame they deserved in the early 60’s. So track down what you can – if you can find a copy of the Charly album ‘One Way Out’, fantastic, otherwise try to get a recording with ‘The Sky Is Crying’, ‘One Way Out’ and ‘Dust My Blues’. You should find yourself crying or dancing, and ideally both.
  3. Sonny Boy Williamson (2). There were two SBW’s, but the one you want to listen to initially is SBW (II), aka Rice Miller. Mad as a bucket of frogs, but you can’t fault his influence. I saw some footage of him on a recording of ‘Ready, Steady, Go’, dressed in a ‘city gent’ suit, and wearing a bowler hat – I think he was trying to fit in with the English audience. He once et fire to a hotel room by trying to cook a rabbit in a coffee percolator. Anyway, the point about SBW is that he was playing straight Chicago Blues that people just felt they had to reference, or in some cases, downright plagiarise. There was something about the way that he approached his music that made it instantly accessible, which given that he was taking often fairly sinister songs from the delta, hopping up to Chicago, and then travelling to play to audiences in Europe, is no mean achievement. You really ought to listen to ‘Help Me’, Eyesight to the Blind’ and ‘Checkin’ Up On My Baby’ to understand what I mean here.
  4. Koko Taylor – Not a big name outside blues afficianados, but her stuff is pretty easy to get hold of, and you could do worse than go to one of the Alligator compilations. Try to get something that uses the big Chicago sound with lots of horns, like she has on ‘Wang Dang Doodle’. The inspiring thing about Koko Taylor is the ease with which she can move towards a gospel sound while still sounding completely genuine.
  5. Howling Wolf – another huge influence on the British Blues scene in the 60’s, and his ‘The London Howlin’ Wolf Sessions’ album, is worth buying just to hear him make mincemeat of the trendy blues wannabees. He sometimes comes across as pretty scary, which is all part of the package, and he must come pretty close to Willie Dixon in the output he’s produced over the years. Have a listen to the anthology album (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Howlin-Wolf-Anthology/dp/B000NIWITA/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&s=music&qid=1234824783&sr=1-2) if you need an introduction.

And no time for BB King, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Buddy Guy, Junior Wells and all the rest. But this was just to get started, so maybe another time, another club and another blog.

Happy listening!


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