R.L. Burnside – Wish I Was in Heaven Sitting Down

Wish I was in Heaven Sitting Down

R.L. BurnsideWish I Was in Heaven Sitting Down Fat Possum 80332-2 (2000)

A “producer” album that pairs R.L. Burnside’s weary blues with trip hop electronics.  It actually works on a few songs, notably the opener “Hard Time Killing Floor” plus “Bad Luck City.”  It really is a bizarre pairing.  When this first came out it was so far removed from Burnside’s usual stuff — though he had dabbled with electronics prior to this album — that I hated it.  Looking back more than a decade and a half later, it clearly has its merits, mainly in the way it presents Burnside in a bleak and hazy urban setting.  But at the same time the electronics are a little lazy.  The repetitive riffing of Burnside’s hill country blues might seem to call for repetitive electronic beats, but that turns out to not be the case.  Burnside was in somewhat failing health when this album was made, so he sings but doesn’t play guitar.  There is nothing essential here, but this is passable stuff for the most part.

R.L. Burnside – Burnside on Burnside

Burnside on Burnside

R.L. BurnsideBurnside on Burnside Fat Possum 0343-2 (2001)

Slick, polished blues albums are some of the most unlistenable pieces of trash imaginable; this is well known. That bit of wisdom is something RL Burnside certainly has not forgotten.  His albums are sometimes a mixed bag though. His experiments mashing up electronics and blues were marginally interesting. A collaborative punk-blues outing proved inspired. Gimmicks aside, there always was a talented juke joint veteran lurking inside. A man swigging whiskey on the side and strumming out the hypnotic vamps the devil bestowed upon the North Mississippi hill country decades ago. Recorded in Portland and San Francisco, this live disc, recorded at the Crystal Ballroom in Portland, Oregon, scrapes away all but the very essence of RL Burnside. It leaves only the raw and ragged embodiment of modern blues. This is essential Burnside — probably the best place to start in his catalog.

This old man rocks and reels without belying his age. Burnside on Burnside is a gritty little record with attitude. “Skinny Woman” is the best Burnside track you’ll find anywhere. It takes a swaggering stance that just might knock you off your seat. Burnside sings of liquor and women by praising them as his salvations. The substance isn’t in his words. You have to listen to his moans and what lies in between.

Burnside’s classic repertoire here, from “Snake Drive” to “Goin’ Down South” to  is“Shake ‘Em On Down.” Give the band credit for not over-thinking these tunes. They play unadulterated blues and work in a mean fervor. Slide guitar wiz Kenny Brown belts out a sloppy heap of passionate growls. A Burnside compatriot since 1971, Brown is like an “adopted son.” RL’s grandson Cedric, a minimally-competent drummer, keeps the attitude irreverent and fresh. The drones explode with minimalist textures. On stage they looked goofy with RL in his suspenders and/or plaid flannel, Cedric in his hi-top sneakers and Kenny just looking out of place; but they sound fine.

While all this rambling unleashes itself on the album, you can still picture RL seated to the side, plucking his guitar. What makes Burnside so remarkable is — like Howlin’ Wolf — his ultra-modern usage of primitive (meaning old-timey and non-complex) forms. The simple brilliance can make your head swim. These live numbers stick to the group’s strengths. Nothing is too unusual, but even “basic” RL Burnside purrs like a vintage Cadillac that never goes out of style.

Hound Dog Taylor and The HouseRockers – Hound Dog Taylor and The HouseRockers

Hound Dog Taylor and The HouseRockers

Hound Dog Taylor and The HouseRockersHound Dog Taylor and The HouseRockers Alligator AL 4701 (1971)

Here is a blues album that is nothing if not a good time.  Hound Dog Taylor played electric slide guitar (always on cheap guitars and amps) with a raw boogie-woogie feeling — he was highly influenced by Elmore James.  If you have heard streetside buskers playing solo guitar with a battery-powered amp carried on a rolling luggage cart, you probably have a sense of a second- or third-rate version of what Hound Dog sounded like.  He was born with six fingers on each hand, but cut one off as an adult (supposedly in a drunken stupor).  This album, the first for the now-revered Alligator Records, was hugely influential for “primitive” rock acts.  This isn’t music for obsessive (or simply lame) blues aficionados.  This is party music.  While Hound Dog plays standard blues chord progressions, he has a tendency to start riffs very high up on the neck of his guitar, then move down.  Despite being “blues”, that approach gives the music an relatively upbeat quality.  Considering that all the songs are lively and mid- or up-tempo also helps in that regard.  The songs may be about heartbreak and down-and-out circumstances, but Hound Dog delivers the lyrics with a kind of “roll with the punches” irreverence that suggests life is what you make it.  I once read a characterization of the writings of Andrei Platonov as being about finding utopia in what most would consider a dystopia.  Maybe that applies here too.

Junior Wells – Hoodoo Man Blues

Hoodoo Man Blues

Junior Wells’ Chicago Blues BandHoodoo Man Blues Delmark DL-612 (1965)

In conversations about the best electric Chicago blues albums, Junior Wells’ Hoodoo Man Blues is bound to come up.  Sometimes only Magic Sam‘s West Side Soul also contends for that title.  The relatively small number of contenders is partly because blues music as a genre was never particularly successful in the full-length album format.  During the genre’s numerous peaks, singles were more common.  While maybe a couple of songs here are just so-so (“Hound Dog”), most of this is absolutely spot on.  This manages to maintain a consistent mood throughout while still changing up the tempo and attack just enough to keep it interesting — like the way the snappy opener “Snatch It Back and Hold It” gives way to the slow, smoldering follow-up “Ships on the Ocean.”  Buddy Guy is on guitar, and he gives this a sleek, urban sound that recognizes the role that rock music was playing in supplanting the old prewar style of acoustic blues, particularly in the way he occasionally plays choppy riffs.  Wells is in great voice.  He is a harmonica player, but his sing-speak vocals come first.  The recordings are produced in a smooth and warm way that give this a snap and crispness, while still keeping a chugging bottom end with the bass and drums prominent.  It gives so many of the songs a kind of almost minimalist space that is a key to keeping the mood going.  That mood is one of sly sophistication.  Kind of like the way hip-hop music in the mid/late 1990s developed an emphasis on the “east coast mastermind” persona, Wells goes for some kind of forerunner one (timed just after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the legal end of the Jim Crow era) that emphasizes more of a lothario role, or something that approaches a cunning, “schemer” persona.  Whatever it is precisely, he brings across a kind of intimate, feisty independence that is the epitome of charismatic “coolness.”  This is one of the best electric blues albums around.

Magic Sam Blues Band – West Side Soul

West Side Soul

Magic Sam Blues BandWest Side Soul Delmark DS-615 (1968)

Right off with “That’s All I Need,” Magic Sam establishes that the listener is in for something very special. His soulful voice trembles with vibrato and charms you into his world. The first track is a transcendent blues moment. Not even the rest of the album duplicates those opening lines. Coming in behind the metallic reverb of the guitar, his hope and longing are never fully resolved in song. Magic Sam may have the blues, but he pushes everything back if just for a few minutes.

A legend of electric blues, Magic Sam died tragically young. Before he checked out, he left a legacy that has not been forgotten. He injected a raw and punchy version of the dynamic singing style of a soul (or gospel) singer plus garage-y guitar playing with a faint hint of psychedelia into the electric blues lexicon, while preserving a rhythmic style style reminiscent of acoustic blues of the 1930s and 40s that frequently turns to boogie-woogie.  It strikes the perfect balance between delta roots and smooth Chicago styles, with an openness to new developments from genres outside just the blues.  The sound jumps from laid-back strumming to cutting solos. Vocals push and prod the band.  Guitars pull the beat along at a brisk pace, always responsive to the guiding of Sam’s vocals.

In a unique way, West Side Soul is upbeat and redemptive — electrifying.  While covering all the customary blues elements, Magic Sam goes further to lift listeners off the ground.  There is always the hanging question of how his stories end, but Magic Sam likes to say there probably is a happy one.

Magic Sam begs listeners to struggle alongside him through his tragic world. The themes are easy to relate to. Heartbreak is not a foreign concept. “I Found A New Love” and “All of Your Love” are not pillars of confidence. Despite his shaky emotions, Magic Sam sets out for something better. West Side Soul is a rare glimpse into a personal transformation. Hesitation weighs against possibility in an eternal conflict.

Songs overflow with energy. “I Don’t Want No Woman” is a frustrated rocker. Magic Sam pleads as much with himself as his woman. The assertion of semi-independence is more a desire to explore for while longer. On Robert Johnson’s “Sweet Home Chicago” the band stretches out in a sly groove. The song now reflects a permanent home rather than a mythical paradise. Mighty Joe Young strides confidently on guitar. Odie Payne is a fury on drums. Stockholm Slim on piano and Earnest Johnson on bass round out this killer band (with Mack Thompson and Odie Payne III featured on three tracks).

West Side Soul is a highly revered blues album. It is also a perfect introduction to electric blues for anyone interested in discovering postwar blues.  Not bad for a debut at all.

John Fahey – Vol 3: Dance of Death & Other Plantation Favorites

Vol 3: Dance of Death & Other Plantation Favorites

John FaheyVol 3: Dance of Death & Other Plantation Favorites Takoma C 1004 (1965)

As a guitarist John Fahey’s talents grew quickly in the early 1960s.  Vol 3: Dance of Death & Other Plantation Favorites was definitely his most accomplished album to date (though later re-recordings of his first two albums are just as good).  He was still operating in reach of the traditional blues, folk and country material he drew from.  Excursions into the realm of tape manipulation, field recording overdubs, and experimental guitar techniques still lay in the future.  But his trademark ability to take traditional forms and re-purpose them into something a little darker and more existential — by way of trying to play a “symphony” on a single steel string acoustic guitar — coalesced here.  Surely one of the man’s best efforts.  Worthy of plenty of spins.

John Fahey – The Transfiguration of Blind Joe Death

The Transfiguration of Blind Joe Death

John FaheyThe Transfiguration of Blind Joe Death Riverboat RB-1 (1965)

By the time he recorded The Transfiguration of Blind Joe Death, John Fahey was beginning to experiment.  He was drawing in influence not just from country, blues and folk, but also Euro-classical and Indian classical traditions.  What holds this album back from being great is that he’s going in too many different directions.  He doesn’t quit fit everything together as seamlessly as he would later on The Yellow Princess or in as sweeping and epic a way as on America, and for that matter the experiments are a bit more tepid than on the likes of Guitar Vol. 4 (The Great San Bernardino Birthday Party and Other Excursions), which is admittedly a bit uneven.  Fahey admirers will nonetheless dig this, and it still holds the potential to open a few eyes and ears for the unconverted too.  If you have the option, though, head for The Yellow Princess and America first to hear the ideas here more fully realized.

J.B. Lenoir – The Parrot Sessions: Expanded Edition

The Parrot Sessions: Expanded Edition

J.B. LenoirThe Parrot Sessions: Expanded Edition V.I. Music 545 450 598-2 (2003 [1989])

A bit like the early electric blues of T-Bone Walker, but more loose, more raw, with an edginess more like Elmore James.  It’s understandable that Jimi Hendrix would cite Lenoir as an influence.  “Mama Talk to Your Daughter” is a classic, complete with an anti-guitar-hero one-chord solo, and “Eisenhower Blues” marked the emergence of his political side as a songwriter — something that would factor more heavily on his later albums.