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Robert Jr. Lockwood
The Legend Live
M.C. Records

Robert Jr. Lockwood

This is Lockwood's first domestic release since 2000, and the exquisite live album is well worth the wait. The performance at Phoenix's Rhythm Room sees the 89-year-old elder statesman of the blues draw upon six decades of bluesmanship.

This masterful performance on 12-string electric guitar comes to us from the only living performer to have learned the craft from Robert Johnson, his stepfather. (Lockwood performs four of Johnson's songs here, including "Sweet Home Chicago".) Lockwood spent the '30s and beyond gigging with Sonny Boy Williamson and Howlin' Wolf and became a noted Chess session guitarist. Lockwood continued to innovate and improve his clear, crystalline style through the '70s, resulting here in a gifted performer exhibiting emotion and soul honed to a sharp edge with precision and technical ability shining with the glint of a jazz patina.

The dozen songs here cover material by Mance Lipscomb, Leroy Carr, Roosevelt Sykes and more. Lockwood never before recorded many of the songs here, or never recorded them as a solo performance.

Now in 1913, Leroy “Lasses” White told us “Oh, the blues ain’t nothing/But a good man feeling bad.” This scintillating performance from Lockwood is journey by time machine to meet many of those good men of the past.

Lockwood initiates the show with “Meet Me In The Bottom,” by the renaissance man of the blues, scholar songster Mance Lipscomb. However, the shining and smiling delivery takes from the lows to the lofty heights where Lockwood stands arm-to-shoulders with the smiling jester of the blues, Roosevelt Sykes (“Feel Like Blowin’ My Horn”). Another pianist, prolific songwriter Leroy Carr, comes up next with the rollicking “Mean Mistreater Mama.”

As the set turns emotional and sad, Lockwood clamps down on the strings to suppress the ringing tones for a pointedly and poignantly delivered “She’s Little and She’s Low” (Roosevelt Sykes). After this deliberate delivery, Lockwood loosens a bit more to perform a great follow-up tune, “How Long Blues” (Leroy Carr). The crowd, largely silent to this point (rapt), claps as the anthemic pinnacle at the midpoint of this set, Robert Johnson’s “Sweet Home Chicago,” begins.

Keeping things interesting, Lockwood follows with “Exactly Like You,” the pop gem from the songwriting team of Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields. All of the focus on pianists’ songs seems to strike at the heart of the Lockwood style: melody over rhythm.

After this brief pop interlude and the addition of a comical, self-deprecating coda, Lockwood launches into a trio of Robert Johnson songs: “Love in Vain,” “From Four Until Late,” and “Ramblin’ on my Mind.”

While “Love in Vain” is delivered with ringing melody, and gives the most vociferous audience reaction of the disk, Lockwood echoes the after-hours mood on “From Four Until Late” with a more sparse, understated delivery. “Ramblin’ on my Mind” is similarly delivered with a lot of empty space which Lockwood fills with a bright and clear vocal delivery. Lockwood then rambles on to the antecedent of the Robert Johnson style, Johnnie "Geechie" Temple. Syncopating the rhythm, Lockwood gives us the salacious “Big Leg Woman.”

Lockwood turns back to Leroy Carr’s songbook for the delicately and simply delivered “In the Evening” as an apt closer to the set.

In a final farewell speech, Lockwood sharply and suddenly asks the audience for something – money? Applause? Regardless, it is the saddest note on this golden example of the craft of solo blues from a master of the art.

--- Tom Schulte

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