SRV’s excellent Pride and Joy on 12-string [MTV Unplugged]

I remember watching this wonderful performance of Pride and Joy on 12-string guitar on MTV the night Stevie Ray Vaughan passed away. SRV just made an amazing comeback with the hit Crossfire and was enjoying the most successful period in his career when tragedy struck. The unplugged format was still in its infancy in 1990; the show was much more about music then gimmickry.


Hidden Charms : Willie Dixon’s aptly titled final CD

Willie Dixon’s 1988 Hidden Charms was one of the first non-compilation blues CDs I bought and I have a great fondness for the album. Although a prominent bassist and producer at Chess Records, Dixon is more remembered as the composer of many blues classics like I Can’t Quit You Baby, Little Red Rooster, Hoochie Coochie Man, I Just Want To Make Love To You and many more tunes covered by late 1960s bands from Led Zeppelin to the Rolling Stones (check out Wikipedia’s article on Willie Dixon).

Generally not considered an essential or great blues album by diehard blues fans, the music on Hidden Charms is nonetheless very listenable and won a Grammy Award for Best Traditional Blues Recording in 1988. The songs on the album aren’t of the more popular blues rock variety but all the tracks offer a groovy sound. Featuring an all star band of Chess session musicians Dixon had worked with from the 1950s and 1960s mixed with some newer talents like Sugar Blue (on harp), the performances on the songs are understated but very tasteful. In particular, one can hear great rapport between guitarist Cash McCall, pianist Lafeyette Leake and Sugar Blue on I Cry For You (the highlight of the CD for me) and I Do The Job.  Jazz bassist Red Callender provides classy bass lines that provides tracks like Don’t Mess With The Messer and I Don’t Trust Myself with an old school swinging big band sound.

It is also worth mentioning that the sound quality on the Hidden Charms CD is excellent. Highly recommended.

Hidden Charms

Folk Singer : Muddy Water’s most intimate session

folk-singer.jpgIn 1963, Chess Records asked Muddy Waters to produce an album targeted at the folk revival scene. Water’s brought along new talent – Buddy Guy – for these “unplugged” sessions that were to become Folk Singer. The album represents an anomaly in Muddy Waters’ discography as Waters had begun electrifying his sound, but since the market for blues diminished significantly in the early 1960s, an acoustic  folk approach seemed to make financial sense. The album never transformed Waters into a folk revival hit as it did for Son House, Lightin’ Hopkins and others, but it nevertheless contains some of Waters’ most intimate music.

The tracks on Folk Singer can be roughly split up into three groups : this first features Muddy and a band consisting of Buddy Guy, Willie Dixon and Clifton James; the second group of songs see Waters accompanied solely by Guy; and finally, there is one song where Muddy is totally on his own. The tracks where Muddy is backed by a band generally have more swing to them. The songs with Muddy and Buddy, I feel, are the most exceptional tracks in the collection as it contrasts Buddy more fluid style with Muddy’s muscular riffs. I was less impressed with Muddy’s solo cut. Throughout the album, Muddy plays a mean slide guitar; unlike his late albums where he generally played the same riffs over and over again, his guitar work on Folk Singer remains fresh and creative.

Curiously, Folk Singer is marketed currently as an “audiophile” disc (and in a comic twist, Muddy is translated into 水泥佬 in Chinese) . Apparently, the sessions were given serious remastering by some German technicians back in 1994. As a result, the sound quality is very good and it retains the echoey flavour common in classic Chess recordings of that era. The music on Folk Singer sounds very crisp and engaging.

Highly recommended. Stand out tracks : #1 My Home Is In The Delta, #4 Good Morning School Girl, #6 Cold Weather Blues, #7 Big Leg Woman.

Classic Concerts : 3 great Muddy Waters gigs on 1 DVD

muddy-waters-live-s.jpg Muddy Waters – Classic Concerts collects 3 gigs by the master bluesman that features significantly different bands over a period of 17 years. The 3 concerts are :

1) His historic appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival, 1960. Band : Pat Hare (g), Otis Spann (p), James Cotton (harp), Andrew Stephenson (b), Francis Clay (dr).

2) Copenhagen Jazz Festival, 1968. Band : Luther “Snake” Johnson (g), Pee Wee Madison (g), Otis Spann (p), Paul Oscher (harp), Sonny Wimberley (b), S.P. Leary (dr).

3) Molde Jazz Festival, 1977. Band : Bob Margolin (g), Luther “Guitar” Johnson (g), Pinetop Perkins (p), Jerry Portnoy (harp), Calvin Jones (b), Willie Smith (dr).

Listening to these 3 concerts, one can easily see how Muddy Waters’ live act changed over the years – he incorporated more guitar players into the band, yet maintained giving plenty of room for his harp players to shine. The music on the Newport set features a younger Muddy Waters and the music comes across as much more aggressive and energetic. The latter sets lack the impact of the Newport concert but make up for this with perhaps a more accomplished band and more solo space for the instrumentalists. I found all three concerts offered top notch and very satisfying blues.

Of the 3 sets, I was most impressed with the acclaimed Newport set. For this DVD, the producers synced a remastered stereo audio track to the concert footage and the result is simply stunning. The sound quality is awesome and does justice to the performances. The DVD also features a generous booklet with a preface by Bill Wyman from the Rolling Stones and a guide to each concert by Muddy Waters guitarist Bob Margolin.

Verdict : An essential buy for blues fans!

Funky London : Albert King grooves with the Bar-Kays

Re-listening to Albert King’s early 1970s tracks on Funky London was quite a revelation. When I first acquired the disc many years ago, the songs didn’t particularly strike me as outstanding. When I gave a spin recently, however, I found the music very funky. Albert King once said that he wanted to try to make the music more accessible for the younger generation and thus he created music with a more soulful and funky sound rather than another straight blues album. Being a Stax recording, the backup band consisted of members of Booker T & The MGS as well as the Bar-Kays. The tracks are a mixture of groovy instrumental work-outs mixed with a few slow blues numbers; Albert King’s guitar work sounds fresher than on most sessions and there are loads of great solos to be found on the disc.

Verdict : not essential Albert King, but very good nonetheless.

Sonny Boy Williamson’s King Biscuit Time

Sonny Boy Williamson made a name for himself with the radio show King Biscuit Time in the early 1940s. Tall and imposing physically, Sonny Boy Williamson remained an enigmatic figure. If legend is to be believed, he was supposed to have been playing with Robert Johnson on the night Johnson died. He was supposed to have advised Robert Johnson against drinking a bottle of opened beer offered. Sonny Boy was himself a hard-bitten professional with a fondness for alcohol and gambling. He also gave many blues players their first break and inspired many others.

Little Milton : Rice Miller was a hell of a musician as far as the harmonica was concerned. He taught me self-esteem, he taught me respect, taught me how to not only respect yourself but to respect the audience.

King Biscuit Time

Sonny Boy Williamson blowing the harp

Source: Portrait of the Blues by Paul Trynka

Real Folk Blues is outstanding value for money

The music of Sonny Boy Williamson II (a.k.a Rice Miller) ought to be on every blues fans’ collection. Sonny Boy Williamson started playing the blues way back in the 1920’s and has played with influential figures like Robert Johnson, Elmore James and Robert Lockwood Jr., a guitarist who would often feature in his backing band.

Sonny Boy Williamson plays in a simple style. He blows with a nice tone, clear bending notes and a killer vibrato. In fact, some of his solo breaks almost have a guitar solo quality to them. He never overplays like more contemporary harpists (I’m thinking of Sugar Blue in particular). Robert Santelli acknowledges Sonny Boy as “the most lyrical harp player the postwar blues period produced” in The Best Of The Blues: 101 Essential Albums.

I like most of Sonny Boy Williamson’s recordings on Chess, but the 2-in-1 CD The Real Folk Blues / More Real Folk Blues is a good value for money buy. The CD collects the blues maestro’s best cuts from his 10 year stint at Chess records and features essential blues tunes including:

– One Way Out
– Bring It On Home
– Dissatisfied
– Nine Below Zero

Band members differ on most cuts, but the regulars include Otis Spann (piano), Lefayette Leake (piano), Robert Lockwood Jr. (guitar), Luther Tucker (guitar), Buddy Guy (guitar), Willie Dixon (bass), Fred Below (drums).

Verdict : another must buy blues CD!