By Bradley Bambarger <2007>
“The blues had a baby, and they named it rock’n’roll” so Muddy Waters sang. The blues seeded rock from Elvis Presley to The Rolling Stones to Led Zeppelin, and it’s still an essential strand of popular music’s DNA.
The first entry in this multi-part series on building a blues library focused on the genre’s rural roots, covering such country-blues kingpins as Robert Johnson and Skip James. The second traced the blues in its urban strain, from Bessie Smith to B.B. King.
Here, the spotlight is on the blues in the post-rock era. It’s a big tent that has room not only for Muddy Waters protégé Buddy Guy, but also The Black Keys, a young rock duo inspired by backwoods electric blues.
Otis Spann with Fleetwood Mac: The Biggest Thing Since Colossus (Blue Horizon/Columbia)
Otis Spann — a Mississippi-bred pianist who made it in Chicago, like so many other bluesmen — was Muddy Waters’ right-hand man. But Spann was also a fine singer, blending deep soul with boozy charm. One of his best solo ventures saw Peter Green’s early Fleetwood Mac roaring behind him. The British blues boom led to several rock bands backing up their American heroes, but this 1969 session rules the roost. One highlight is “My Love Depends on You,” with Green spitting out guitar leads over Spann’s bone-weary plea. The original disc is hard to find, but the whole album is included in the recently remastered set of Spann’s complete Blue Horizon recordings.
Buddy Guy: Can’t Quit the Blues (Silvertone/Legacy)
Born in Louisiana in 1936 and a fixture in Chicago since the late ’50s, singer-guitarist Buddy Guy stole the show in the recent Rolling Stones concert film. His performance showed the wild-eyed edge that has made him the most volatile and enduring of second-generation postwar bluesmen, an influence from Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton to Stevie Ray Vaughan and Jonny Lang. Though his records are inconsistent, this four-disc boxed set culls the cream from his first sessions to his Grammy-winning ’90s comeback, plus outtakes and such recent gems as his thrilling take on Lowell Fulson’s “Tramp.” A DVD of live clips shows why Robert Cray calls his solos “laughter from outer space.”
Jimi Hendrix: Blues (Experience Hendrix/Universal)
Jimi Hendrix reinvented rock guitar for the space age, but the root of his sound was in the blues, being an aficionado of Elmore James, B.B. King and Buddy Guy. This 11-track 1994 compilation features radio sessions, studio outtakes and live cuts to give a snapshot of Hendrix as bluesman. The disc includes a long “electric church” version of his original “Red House,” a song that ranks with any gutbucket blues classic (it “tears you apart,” John Lee Hooker said). There’s also a Band of Gypsies jam on “Born Under a Bad Sign.” The prize rarity, though, is the impromptu acoustic rendition of his “Hear My Train a Comin’,” taken from the original Jimi Hendrix documentary.
Stevie Ray Vaughan: The Essential Stevie Ray Vaughan (Columbia/Legacy)
John Hammond Sr., who signed Billie Holiday, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen to Columbia Records, paid Stevie Ray Vaughan the ultimate compliment when he said, “I haven’t heard a musician as imbued with the blues spirit since Robert Johnson.” Vaughan was a devotee of Hendrix and the Texas school of guitar slingers (including his brother, Jimmie). But he had a towering virtuosity all of his own, one that was maturing just before he died in a helicopter crash in 1990 at age 35. The SRV boxed set is a must-have for hardcore fans, but this double-CD “Essential” is a fine shortcut, ranging from classic studio originals (“Pride and Joy”) to fiery live takes on vintage blues (such as Buddy Guy’s “Leave My Girl Alone”).
Eric Clapton: Sessions for Robert J (Reprise/Warner Bros. DVD/CD)
An ideal pair: There’s no greater classic blues icon than Robert Johnson and no bigger rock-era blues idol than Eric Clapton. The British guitarist made Johnson’s “Crossroads” a late-’60s anthem with Cream, and he regularly returned to the ill-fated Mississippian’s songs. But it wasn’t until 2004’s Me and Mr. Johnson that Clapton devoted an entire album to his idol’s songbook, quickly following that with this generous DVD/CD set drawn from studio and hotel-room sessions, even the Dallas warehouse where Johnson made his final records. The freshly textured arrangements range from acoustic duets (“Me and the Devil Blues”) to full-band electric (“Milkcow’s Calf Blues”). Clapton’s singing is soulful, his playing the acme of subtlety.
Robert Cray: Definitive Collection (Hip-O)
Robert Cray, born in 1953, peaked as a star in the ’80s and early ’90s with his R&B-accented smash “Smokin’ Gun,” a string of Grammys and pairings with such admirers as Clapton and John Lee Hooker. But the Northwest native with the smooth, vintage-soul vocals and stinging Stratocaster has kept on keeping on, remaining a class act as he subtly tweaks his sound and songwriting (hitting the target in 2005 with an intense Iraq War ballad, “Twenty”). This anthology’s title overstates the case, but it’s a quality survey of Cray’s major-label years, including not only “Smokin’ Gun” but such haunted highlights as “I Shiver” and “Moan.”
Chris Whitley: Perfect Day (New Machine/Valley)
Few seemed as poised to make the tools and temperament of the blues relevant in the 21st century quite like late singer-guitarist Chris Whitley. The Texas-born New Yorker, who died in 2005 at age 45 of cancer, played the old National steel guitar, but had an avant-garde spirit. Perfect Day is a set of revelatory covers on a lovesick theme, with songs of sexual healing and wrenching despair from Robert Johnson and Howlin’ Wolf to Bob Dylan, The Doors and Lou Reed. Abetted rustically by the rhythm duo from groove-jazzers Medeski, Martin & Wood, Whitley makes the Muddy Waters rarity “She’s Alright” his slow-burning own. And his fallen-angel falsetto turns an ancient blues of lust, “Wild Ox Moan,” into a romantic ode.
Bob Dylan: Modern Times (Columbia)
A blues connoisseur from the start, Bob Dylan knows that all the great blues artists customized traditional numbers, mixing and matching verses, adding their own lines. Muddy Waters didn’t invent “Rollin’ and Tumblin’.” He just rocked it harder than anyone else who came before. Dylan gives that tune his own wry makeover on his latest album. With his roadhouse band in tow, he also rewires the folk-blues standards “Someday, Baby” (familiar from Sleepy John Estes to B.B. King) and “The Levee’s Gonna Break” (from Memphis Minnie to Led Zeppelin). Even when Dylan essays his own deep Americana ballads and quirky swing pop, the songs are full of twists on old blues lyrics.
The Black Keys: Chulahoma (Fat Possum)
Feted now in the mainstream, The Black Keys did the right thing by paying early homage to the influence of bluesman Junior Kimbrough (1930–98). Named after his native county in north Mississippi, Chulahoma saw the Ohio guitar-drums duo cover six Kimbrough mantras of lowdown longing, which hark back to the deepest African roots of the blues. The Black Keys are true to the style yet make it their own; they play “Work Me” and “My Mind Is Ramblin’ “ with hard-edged electric soul, the guitars keening darkly, the drums a primal pound. Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant aptly described Dan Auerbach’s voice as coming “from a very old place.” Another fan is Kimbrough’s widow, whose phone message appears at the disc’s end to extol the duo as “the only ones that really play like Junior.”
John Hammond: Push Comes to Shove (Back Porch)
The best bluesmen are like whisky — they get better with age. John Hammond, son of the famous Columbia record man, was dubbed a great white hope of the blues as a ’60s youth, but his talents were callow then. But after decades on the road mastering the mojo, Hammond became a true “conjurer,” as Americana maven T-Bone Burnett called him. Wicked Grin, his 2001 set of Tom Waits covers, is one of the decade’s great albums, but Hammond’s most recent disc packs a punch, too. Helmed by Philly retro-groover G. Love, Push Comes to Shove includes a howling take on Junior Wells’ “Come On in This House” and Hammond’s own rocker “Push Comes to Shove,” his vocals a sage lesson in grit, his electric guitar as bruising as a bar fight.
(Originally published in 2007 as the third in a three-part series in The Star-Ledger of New Jersey.)