Johnny Winter (at the beginning of “Johnny B. Goode”):
“This is rock ‘n’ roll!”
“This ain’t rock ‘n’ roll, this is genocide!”
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
John Fahey – Your Past Comes Back to Haunt You: The Fonotone Years [1958-1965] Dust-to-Digital DTD-21 (2011)
A collection of material recorded for Joe Bussard‘s Fonotone label in Fahey’s early years. Fonotone billed itself as the last label issuing records in the old 78 RPM format. There is a documentary about Bussard, a well-known vintage record collector, were he mentions buying old 78s off people and paying them a “fair price,” in other words he attempts an apology for paying these folks far less than what he thought the records were worth. Anyway, as recounted in the opening interview on this set, Fahey would go over to Bussard’s place and Bussard would give him booze and let him take records from his pile of duplicates. This was enough incentive for Fahey to swing by and cut the recordings collected here.
Compared to Fahey’s recordings on his own Takoma label, most of these Fonotone ones are more traditional blues and folk, without the more experimental edge Fahey elsewhere explored. One thing that should probably be pointed out is that some of these were released under an alias, and Fahey does some kind of “voice acting” that is best described as racist minstrelsy. Aside from that, though, the guitar playing is quite good on almost all the cuts.
Things sort of modernize a bit to resemble Fahey’s Takoma recordings on some of the 1962 cuts. However, compared to the Takoma recordings some of these sound like only rehearsals. Some terrible vocals and accompaniment also appear. The more modern material from 1962 onward takes on a noticeably darker emotional tone. The last disc, recorded mostly in 1965, is the best. Fahey had grown tremendously as a guitarist, and he was now playing in his own unique, distinct style.
Loren MazzaCane Connors – Night Through: Singles and Collected Works 1976-2004 Family Vineyard FV36 (2006)
There is something rather amazing about the work of Loren Connors. To the casual observer, the collection Night Through might seem like nothing more than than home recordings of solo guitar noodling. But given a fair listen, it becomes apparent from this evidence that Connors achieved something that might seem impossible in his era: a completely unique style of guitar playing. A blurb by Susan Sontag on the back of a paperback copy of Jean Genet‘s Notre-Dames des Fleurs [Our Lady of the Flowers] proclaims that “Only a handful of twentieth-century writers, such as Kafka and Proust, have as important, as authoritative, as irrevocable a voice and style.” Connors is a bit like Genet. His sound is irrevocable. The work of both masters too is in touch with fringe elements of society, by conscious choice. With Connors, he is an electric guitarist (mostly) who seems to have bypassed most of the influence of rock and instead drawn inspiration primarily from pre-war acoustic blues and gospel. His music is quite untouched by identifiable trends in contemporaneous folk, blues, rock or jazz. It might also be said that there is a resigned acceptance of the categorically un-commercial nature of the music, something inexorably linked to a kind of meager, isolated existence (whether by choice or not). This, by way of contrast, lends credence to what Petronius revealed in his Satyricon of ancient Roman times that the art of the rich, in its typical grotesque extravagance, is so often intolerable. In his improvised blues-based songs, Connors uses a wide and lethargic vibrato that is his primary mode of expression. Almost everything is slow and sparse, with a dark, haunting, dirge-like quality shot through with the occasional bolt of anthemic consonance. If ever this music feels crude and frayed, by the mores of the rich at least, it never fails to be anything short of captivating.