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May 2007

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Koko Taylor
Old School
Alligator Records

Koko TaylorOld 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 Doodle.”
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 composition.

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!!

--- Terry Clear

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 musicians.

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


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