Old School is Koko Taylor’s third album in 14 years, and
her first for seven years, mainly because of her health problems
including a stay in hospital in 2003.
However, it has been well worth the wait!
Koko, to my mind, has never produced a bad album, but this one is up
there with the best of them, thanks in part to the intuitive production
of Bruce Iglauer. The album is a mix of originals and covers (Willie
Dixon, Magic Sam, and others), all backed by a good, professional, band
featuring guitarists Bob Margolin and Criss Johnson, and harmonica from
Billy Branch. Koko’s voice shows little of the strain from her illness,
and it recalls some of her early work that she recorded for Chess
records way back.
The CD opens with “Piece Of Man,” a steady rocking blues that let’s you
know from the outset that Koko is back in form. Billy Branch showcases
some good harmonica playing, supported so well by the guitars, but they
don’t overshadow Koko’s voice on this well-written track.
Koko follows up with “Gonna buy Me A Mule,” another good rocking blues
with a pure early '60s flavour to it – it was written by Koko, but it
has a definite Willie Dixon style, really reminiscent of “Wang Dang
Track three is a lovely updated version of “You Is One Black Rat,” the
old Memphis Minnie (Lizzie Douglas) number; Koko Taylor has taken this
and transformed it into a good up-tempo modern blues, without losing the
original flavour, in a similar fashion to the way that Eric Clapton did
with Robert Johnson’s “Crossroads.”
The style changes to slow and moody with “Money Is The Name Of The
Game,” written by Johnny Thompson. It's a real nice late night blues
with some very haunting harmonica from Branch, before picking up the
heat again with “You Ain’t Worth A Good Woman,” another Koko Taylor
There are cover versions of tracks by Lefty Dizz, Magic Sam & Willie
Dixon, as well as the covers mentioned above. The best of them has to be
the Lefty Dizz number, “Bad Avenue,” as it fits Koko’s style and
voice exactly --- an absolutely faultless track!
To my mind, this is also the best track on the album, although every
track has its good points and it’s very difficult to pick a favourite.
What pushed me into picking this one is the Muddy Waters style that
creeps into it and just gives it that little extra something.
Another track worthy of mention is “Bad Rooster,” written for Koko by
Richard Fleming & E.G.Knigh. When I spotted this on the track listing I
wrongly assumed that it was an updated “Little Red Rooster,” but it’s
not. This is a really good blues track in its own right, with some
grin-making, chicken-pecking guitar!
This CD has been a long time coming, but now it’s here it’s a must for
any serious blues lover. Go out and buy it and enjoy!!
When I saw Koko Taylor’s fiery performance at last year’s Pocono
Blues Festival, I knew we had not seen or heard the last of her. Given
that the "Queen Of The Blues" had a close brush with death and spent
months in the hospital in late 2003 and 2004, the fact that she is still
“fixing to go to work” at age 78 is amazing.
Even more remarkable is the strength of her vocals and songwriting
skills on Old School. She wrote five vibrant originals and chose
seven others with a special meaning to her. Many are about relationships
and contain age old blues imagery and analogies. The music on this disc
comes with power, forcefulness, and a certain sexiness. It’s the Queen’s
first album in seven years and one that, quite frankly, Bruce Iglauer
“thought would never be made.” In a career that practically spans half a
century, she’s been recording for Iglauer’s Alligator Records for over
30 years and continues to be their monarch.
Born just outside Memphis, Tennessee, Koko Taylor was influenced by the
blues music she heard on the radio. At the age of 18, she moved to
Chicago with nothing but 35 cents and a box of Ritz crackers. There,
while singing in a club, she was discovered by Willie Dixon. “I love
singing the real, old school blues,” asserts Taylor. “This album is the
kind of blues I was listening to down South and I when I first came to
Chicago.” That traditional style of electric blues, which now attracts
only a small audience, is commonly misunderstood as boring. However,
that isn’t how these thrilling tracks come across.
If you’ve seen Taylor’s energized show over the past several years,
you’ll not require the credits to confirm which adrenalin-laced track
features her rockin’ road tested Blues Machine band. On every other
song, the young contemporaries step aside in favor of a band of lifelong
With bellowing vocals and an unquestionable Chicago blues technique,
"Piece Of Man" contains a classic Taylor sound. Bob Margolin’s killer
slide and Billy Branch’s superb harp can be heard on Memphis Minnie’s
"Black Rat" and Lefty Dizz’s "Bad Avenue." Margolin is an old school
aficionado who once referred to it as being a contagious disease. Like
water into a sponge, you’ll be so absorbed into the slow blues On "Money
Is The Name Of The Game" you will experience everything Taylor sings and
each note Johnson plays. Now that’s the blues.
Most of the songs where Criss Johnson – her long-time arranger – is the
only guitarist have a contemporary feel due to his modern-day guitar
sound. By nature, Johnson isn’t an old school guitarist. On occasion he
can’t resist playing a practically distorted hard rock style guitar
solo. Ironically, distortion was purposely a part of the old school
sound thanks to cranked up old amplifiers.
Mark Kazanoff’s bursting sax, Jimmy Sutton’s commanding upright bass,
and Brother John Kattke’s stellar piano help to keep the structure in
the past on "Gonna Buy Me A Mule." It and "Better Watch Your Step" are
the CD’s strongest selections. The former features Taylor’s best vocals
of the album. "You Ain’t Worth A Good Woman" – a kickin’ and fashionable
song – contains Taylor’s well known sass, strut, and funk, which is
absent from the dragging rendition of Magic Sam’s "All Your Love."
I initially thought this CD had missed its mark of being an old school
blues record because it is quite contemporary sounding. Upon realizing
the goal was to create a blues record in the spirit of old school blues,
I can honestly say the goal was exceeded two fold.
--- Tim Holek