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Alligator has been to blues labels as Living Blues has been to blues mags --- the gold standard. Few others could get away with labeling a series “crucial.” These new budget samplers (list price $7.98 each!) from Alligator are a walk through modern blues history.
Consider the Crucial Chicago Blues sampler, with a young Koko Taylor gracing the cover. The dozen cuts assembled aren’t pop-blues standards, though each offers a glimpse into what caught label owner Bruce Iglauer’s critical ear and convinced him that these artists needed to be heard.
It’s no coincidence that Luther Allison leads off two of these collections. He was Thor with a guitar. “Low Down And Dirty,” from Reckless, his last recording, is a wall shaker. Koko Taylor’s “Ernestine,” from her Royal Blue of 2000 casts her in the role of matriarch, and she proves here that she can still shake it on this self-penned gem that warns Ernestine to find another man.
Junior Wells is represented by “Somebody Changed the Lock” from Harp Attack, cut with James Cotton, Carey Bell and Billy Branch. Hot on his tail is Hound Dog Taylor, the slide guitar master who inspired Iglauer to form the label 30 years ago. Guitarists in blues are plentiful. Alligator has had most of the best, as evidenced by Son Seals and his fiery “Cotton Picking Blues,” from his first recording for the label in 1973. Then, as now, he was one of the most exciting blues guitarists of his time. Harmonica legend Carey Bell, on board for “Let Me Stir In Your Pot,” and the great James Cotton (“23 Hours too Long”) both show on the harp disc, as well.
Magic Slim turns in a fine version of the classic “Mama Talk to Your Daughter,” Lonnie Brooks is heard on a scalding live version of “Cold Lonely Nights,” and Fenton Robinson turns in a superb “I Hear Some Blues Downstairs.” Lil’ Ed & his Blues Imperials scream through “My Mind Is Gone,” the kind of song that has burned down more than a few stages around the world. Pinetop Perkins turns in a classic and classy take on “Take it Easy Baby.” Chicago blues don’t get no better.
Try to find a better representation of the electric blues guitar. Given Alligators wealth of plectoral geniuses over the years, there are no surprises on Crucial Guitar Blues. Jaws will drop at a hundred paces.
Luther Allison leads the charge with the monumental “All The King’s Horses” from his 1995 Blue Streak. This is Electric Blues Guitar 101. Then, reminding us that they’re still crucial in the new century, Michael Burks, one of the new young guns on the roster (ok, more gun than young), offers “Heartless,” a fretful of tasty licks top to bottom.
Coco Montoya, the veteran of work with both Albert Collins (as drummer) and John Mayall, is all about roots and busting out of the mold at the same time. His Collins-inspired chops are all over “Same Old Thing,” from Can’t Look Back, one of my favorite discs of 2002. Coco usually qualifies as an act too amazing to follow, so naturally Albert Collins himself gets the next slot and turns in “Lights Are On But Nobody’s Home,” from the classic Cold Snap album of 1986, his last for the label. Collins was untouchable, and still has few rivals. Little Charlie Baty has that kind of reputation, too. The instrumental, “Percolatin’,” is the epitome of slick licks and fretboard tricks.
“To The Devil For A Dime,” one the most impressive tunes blues rocker Tinsley Ellis has cut over his decade long tenure with the label, follows. The late, great Roy Buchanan’s “Country Boogie” is nearly as good as this guitar giant got (though I’ve always been fond of “Sneakin’ Godzilla Through the Alley”). Son Seals’ “I Can’t Hear Nothin’ But The Blues” reminds a bit of Albert King, and Australian Dave Hole’s over the top slide work sizzles on “Phone Line.” One of the highlights of the disc is Lonnie Mack’s “Double Whammy,” with Stevie Ray Vaughan sharing guitar licks. Anyone fortunate enough to have caught the tour they did together in 1985 can testify to the electricity that flew from the stage. Some of that was captured on mentor Mack’s Strike Like Lightnin’ .
Johnny Winter, who recorded three albums for the label, debuted with the aptly titled Guitar Slinger. “I Smell Trouble” is taken from that first rate 1984 effort, reminding any within earshot that straight ahead blues has always been at the blues-rocker’s core. Clarence ‘Gatemouth’ Brown is as comfortable playing country as blues as jazzy guitar. On the title cut from 1986’s Pressure Cooker, it’s the latter, and it burns.
Novices will find this a great place to start, and long times blues nuts will find it a top-notch collection. And that $7.98 price tag sure is an impressive inducement.
The harp has always represented the soul of the blues. The plaintive wail, the deep throated moan, the rhythmic train. Harpers offer another wellspring for Alligator. They may have missed out on the Sonny Boys and Little Walter, but they did manage to record Big Walter Horton. The tune offered on Crucial Harmonica Blues, recorded with Carey Bell in 1972, is representative of the master even at that relatively late stage. Trading licks at both ends of the register, Walter and Carey represent one of the finest harmonica duos ever captured to vinyl. And this is just one of the dozen amazing tunes in this dynamic collection.
Charlie Musselwhite’s opening “Make My Getaway,” from his 1991 Signature disc, is a hot harp driving a hot rod booking out of town before jumping on the train. Ain’t no catching him. Billy Boy Arnold’s “Shake The Boogie” comes from his wonderful 1993 comeback disc Back Where I Belong, and signaled the return of one of the vital harpers of the 1950s and ‘60s.
Sonny Terry, a legend of post-war blues harp is joined on “Sonny’s Whoopin’ The Doop,” from the 1984 Whoopin disc, by Johnny Winter and Willie Dixon. This was as good as anything the master recorded, and it came half a century into his stellar career.
Harp Attack, released in 1990, was a workout between legends James Cotton, Junior Wells, Carey Bell and Billy Branch. “Broke And Hungry” from that session showcased Wells and Branch in a punchy number that hardly pointed to the best either was capable of. Delbert McClinton’s “Thank You Baby,” from his Live From Austin album, is Texas roadhouse blues at it’s best.
Harmonica Phil Wiggins and his partner John Cephas bring it back to the back porch for the country blues of “Burn Your Bridges” off their new Somebody Told The Truth. For contrast, Rick Estrin, of Little Charlie & The Nightcats, follows with a gorgeously jazzy “Coastin’ Hank” from their latest, That’s Big, showing quite nicely why Estrin is one of a handful of the best in the biz.
James Cotton’s “Superharp” from 1984’s classic High Compression disc follows, highlighting James’ big band blues. Carey Bell’s “Lonesome Stranger,” one of the memorable cuts from his 1984 Deep Down, follows a deep blues line, while Sugar Blue’s version of “One More Mile To Go” from Blue Blazes, his 1984 label debut, parks it in the stratosphere. His re-working of the classic points to his future-aimed attitude toward the blues.
William Clarke’s closer, “Blowin’ Like Hell,” the title cut from his 1990 label debut, is a scorcher. Clarke was one of the greats and is a perfect bookend to Musselwhite on this crucial set of harmonica playing stars.
--- Mark E. Gallo
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