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January 2001

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Various Artists
And This Is Maxwell Street
Rooster Blues

And This Is Maxwell StreetRooster Blues has reissued the three-CD set, And This Is Maxwell Street, which was originally released on Japan's P-Vine label. This is the "soundtrack" to the late Mike Shea's legendary 1964 film, And This Is Free, which documented life on Chicago's Maxwell Street open-air market. For many years (until 1994, when the city shut it down), on any summer Sunday, you could hear an incredible number of major Chicago blues artists, playing for tips, by just walking down Maxwell Street. 

Upon first listen, you will notice that some of the tracks also make up Rounder's Robert Nighthawk's CD, Live on Maxwell Street-1964. That album was made from copies of Shea's original tapes and many of the song titles, musicians, and publishing were in error on that release. For example, on the Rounder CD, the selection "Nighthawk Shuffle" is attributed to Nighthawk. On this release the song is titled "Red Top/Ornithology," and is actually credited to Little Arthur King. In addition, some of the performances were edited. The unknown second guitarist on several of Nighthawk's songs turns out to be Mike Bloomfield, who Shea considered "unauthentic" and did not film any of his work for the documentary (also, Bloomfield's guitar was edited off the Rounder release). 

All of the song and artists credits are now restored as originally presented for the first time. Confusing, maybe, but when you hear the music on these discs, you won't care about any of that. There are any number of notable performances here by Johnny Young, Carey Bell (who, sadly, appears to be the only survivor from these recordings), Big John Wrencher (whose performances here make you wish he had been recorded more), and King. 

However, the real star of this collection is Robert Nighthawk (billed here as Robert Night Hawk). Nighthawk appears on at least 22 of the 30 tracks presented and is also a reticent interview subject by Bloomfield on the third CD of this set (which is interesting, but probably won't make for repeated listenings). This is probably the definitive document of Nighthawk's music. Shea's timing was perfect, as the transient Nighthawk left Chicago shortly after these recordings and never returned. 

The sound on this set is excellent. You can hear the crowds cheering the musicians on, people dropping change into containers for the musicians, and various other street sounds placed between the songs. Shea filmed hours of music, crowd noise, conversations, etc., during the making of his documentary, but the video portions not used on the documentary were eventually thrown away. Luckily the audio tapes survived, so hopefully, there could be more music to hear. The accompanying booklet is indispensable for clearing up the confusion of who did what, when and where. 

This is an essential release, capturing a way of life for blues artists that, for all practical purposes, no longer exists. Every blues fan should want this set in their collection.

--- Graham Clarke

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