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February 2000

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Various Artists
Chicago - The Blues Today!
Vanguard

Chicago - The Blues Today!The mid 1960s was a turbulent time in America. The cold war, political unrest, the poverty levels, and inflation rates were all  ever increasing, and the civil rights movement and the war in Viet Nam were in full swing. Most of youthful America's musical tastes were being guided by Top Forty AM radio hits. But a funny thing happened in the mid-60's --- young people began thinking for themselves and started to discover different musical genres. Folk music was all the rage, and getting mixed into the latest folk boom were blues artists like Lightnin' Hopkins, Son House, Skip James and, the baddest in the land, Muddy Waters.

Enter an ambitious producer named Sam Charters with the idea of recording what was going on in the Chicago blues scene at the time. The results were Chicago - The Blues Today!  --- three separate albums from a group of sessions recorded one very snowy winter in 1965 Chicago, and reissued here in one beautifully designed three-CD set. The artists contained in this collection read like a who's who of Chicago blues in the 60's. First up on disc one is The Junior Wells Chicago Blues Band with Buddy Guy on guitar duties, offering five numbers that include "Help Me," a tribute to Wells' mentor Sonny Boy Williamson, along with Junior's signature piece "Messin With The Kid" and the socially aware "Vietcong Blues." The masterful slidework of J.B. Hutto and His Hawks are next, contributing five tunes with "Too Much Alcohol" and "Married Woman Blues" highlighting their set. Closing out disc one is the master of blues piano, Otis Spann, accompanied only by fellow Muddy Waters bandmate S.P. Leary on drums for five scorchingly hot numbers. "Marie" and "Spanns Stomp" show why he was the epitome of blues piano and what a tremendous loss he was to the music world only a few short years later.

Disc two opens with The Jimmy Cotton Blues Quartet, which was in reality The Muddy Waters Band of the time with James Cotton on harp, James Madison on guitar, along with the previously mentioned Otis Spann and S.P. Leary. Muddy himself did not appear on these sessions as he was under contract to Chess Records and was concerned with legalities. "Cotton Crop Blues," "Rocket 88," and "West Helena Blues" give the listener a glimpse of the shape of things to come with The James Cotton Band a couple of years later. The sweet and soulful guitar of Otis Rush and his band are showcased on "It's A Mean Old World" and "I Can't Quit You Baby," along with two additional numbers. Homesick James and His Dusters complete disc two. Sitting in with James is Willie Dixon on bass and Frank Kirkland on drums for a fiery rendition of "Dust My Broom" and "So Mean To Me."

Disc three should have been titled Big Walter Horton & Friends, because he plays on all 13 tracks, first with Johnny Young's Southside Blues Band for six numbers. Young was probably one of the most underrated blues shouters that ever graced Chicago, and proves it on "One More Time" and "Kid Man Blues." The fabulous Johnny Shines Band is represented here with "Dynaflow Blues," along with "Layin' Down My Shoes And Clothes" and three others. Of special note is an instrumental piece by Big Walter Horton's Blues Harp Band, with Memphis Charlie, entitled "Rockin' My Boogie." The band is the exact same as on the Shines numbers with the addition of a very young "Memphis" Charlie Musslewhite on second harp behind Big Walter, who is simply magnificent on every piece he plays.

Although these sessions were done 35 years ago, they sound as if they could have been cut yesterday and carry the same impact as they did upon their initial releases. Included is a 50-page booklet with photos from the sessions and the original liner notes from each release, along with updated notes from Sam Charters looking back in retrospect. The performances by each and every musician are flawless, and the quality of these recordings are superb considering that all instruments and vocalists were recorded "live" in the studio all at once. Sadly, most of these phenomenal bluesmen are no longer with us and that truly is a shame, but these particular recordings they left behind will endure for generations to come. If you only acquire one reissue this year, make it this one. What was captured that snowy winter in a Chicago studio 35 years ago was purely magical.

--- Steve Hinrichsen

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