Parallel to its regular 4000 series, Chicago-based Alligator started in 1997 a "Best of" collection of sorts, titled Deluxe Edition, each installment summing up a different artist's stay at the label. Albert Collins and Lonnie Brooks were the first to get the Deluxe Edition treatment. Four years later, the eighth and ninth volumes of this retrospective series feature two blues-rock guitarists sharing more than a few similarities, Roy Buchanan and Johnny Winter. Both men signed major-label contracts based almost solely on laudatory articles in Rolling Stone magazine (and only one year apart), both came to Alligator in the mid-80's after a rather lengthy hiatus in their recording career, and both issued three well-received albums for Alligator.
Johnny Winter was spotted in 1968, playing various small clubs, by a Rolling Stone journalist whose task it was to survey the Texas rock scene. A bidding war ensued, and Winter eventually signed with Columbia. By 1971, he already had four albums out, was playing the arena-rock circuit and was about ready to overdose. After a successful detox, he came back to the blues (eventually producing four latter-day Muddy Waters albums), but his sales gradually declined. When he signed with Alligator (at his insistence) in 1984, he had not released anything in 4 years, and he specifically wanted to record blues albums with blues musicians. His rock credibility (a.k.a. marketable name) brought Alligator to mainstream radio, and it encouraged the label to sign other blues-rock acts (something from which the label had shied away until then).
And so it was that Roy Buchanan came back to the spotlight in 1985, five years after he had sworn he would never do another album. Buchanan's career had also been kick-started by a Rolling Stone article where he was described as the "best unknown guitarist in the world." He too signed with a major label (Polygram) in 1969. But it took three years for his debut to come out, after two projects had been shelved and left incomplete. Plagued by unsympathetic producers and spotlight-stealing vocalists (Buchanan is strictly a guitarist), he released five albums on Polygram and three more on Atlantic, with lesser and lesser focus and success, until he called it quits and decided to only play small clubs and avoid recording studios. Until Alligator came along, that is.
Whereas Johnny Winter brought Alligator a much-needed exposure on rock radio, Roy Buchanan was largely forgotten when he came to Bruce Iglauer's label. When he died in 1988 (not 1989, as Iglauer states in the liner notes), he was enjoying the best moments of his career. His Deluxe Edition CD shows just how creative and focused his albums for Alligator were, with some of the most adventurous and wild music of the entire label's catalog.
Things start with a bang, with the most ferocious and deadly version of "Peter Gunn" ever recorded. A big part of the track's energy derives from the amazing rhythm guitar work of ex-Bob Marley sideman Donald Kinsey, now with Kinsey Report. Over the course of this 16-track CD, you'll be treated to an amazing display of guitar prowess, from speeded-up Hawaiian style slide guitar to Hendrix-ian pyrotechnics, but never more than an arm's length from the blues. Guest vocalists include Delbert McClinton and Otis Clay, while Buchanan's half-spoken, half-sung delivery is featured on three tracks.
But the best of the lot are the nine instrumental cuts, two of which are issued here for the first time. More than just a good overview of Buchanan's stay with Alligator, this is a beautifully-paced album that is a joy to listen to from start to finish, the best of the Deluxe Edition series that I've had a chance to listen. Furthermore, if you couple this new release with the 1992 Polygram two-CD set titled Sweet Dreams: The Anthology, you have right there and then the definitive Roy Buchanan career retrospective.
The Johnny Winters Deluxe Edition disk also has plenty to offer. With the excellent Johnny B. Gayden on bass and Casey Jones on drums, and plenty of superlative slide guitar throughout (including a solo acoustic workout on "Bad Girl Blues"), there's never a dull moment. But Winters' aggressive approach to electric blues guitar gives these 14 songs a certain sameness, even though the compilers were careful to include a couple of New Orleans-influenced cuts, plus forays into Chuck Berry-era rock and roll and early R&B. On the plus side, the two previously unreleased tracks feature heavyweights Dr. John and James Cotton, which means that this CD is a must-have for all Johnny Winters fans.
In addition, both releases sport the usual excellent design of this series, with many great pictures and a centerfold sepia-toned poster of Man-with-Guitar communion. Both disks are fine, with Buchanan's getting the nod. But if you are a real fan of blues guitar excellence, you'll definitely want both of these Deluxe Edition CDs.
--- Benoît Brière
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