Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The (R)evolution Continues; Chicago Blues: A Living History reviewed by Mark Thompson

The (R)evolution Continues; Chicago Blues: A Living History
Various artists
Disc 1 – 10 tracks/34:52
Disc 2 – 13 tracks/53:47

Producer Larry Skoller has gathered together noted members of the Chicago blues community for a second volume that celebrates the music’s history over the last seven decades. The first release earned a Grammy nomination in the Traditional Blues Recording category and won a BluesBlast Music in 2009 in the same category.  The premise is simple – get the leading blues musicians together to play a program of tunes composed by many of the most prolific blues songwriters.

Special guests include Buddy Guy, James Cotton and Magic Slim along with Ronnie Baker Brooks, Zora Young and Mike Avery, a cousin of the late Magic Sam.  The other headliners are Billy Boy Arnold, John Primer, Billy Branch, Lurrie Bell and guitarist Carlos Johnson. The backing band is the same as the previous release – Billy Flynn on guitar, Johnny Iguana on piano, Felton Crews on bass and Kenny Smith on drums.

With such an impressive line-up, you would expect plenty of musical fireworks. And that is exactly what you get!  The first disc opens with some exquisite guitar work from Flynn in support of Arnold’s vocal on “He’s a Jelly Roll Baker”.  Biily Boy breaks out his harp on “She Don’t Love Me That Way”, with Iguana’s piano playing driving the arrangement. John Primer channels Muddy Waters on “Canary Bird” with only the rhythm section in support before tearing through “Chicago Bound” with Matthew Skoller on harp. Even better is Primer’s spirited vocal on “Reelin’ and Rockin’” with Flynn and Iguana providing  the instrumental highlights.  Lurrie Bell takes the lead on two songs and really shines on Floyd Jones’ “Stockyard Blues” with Skoller blowing’ some upper register harp licks. Cotton and Branch stage an all-too-brief harp showdown on “Rocket 88” before Branch closes the disc with a version of “Mellow Down Easy” that segues into an energetic rendition of “Bo Diddley” with plenty of dynamic harp work from Branch.

Buddy Guy opens the second disc with a taut vocal and plenty of his patented guitar on “First Time I Met the Blues”.  Next up is Magic Slim with former bandmate Primer lending a hand on “Keep a Drivin’” to capture the leader’s forceful style.  On “Easy 

Baby”, Avery proves to be a talented singer while Flynn recreates Magic Sam’s classic guitar licks. Arnold delivers another exceptional vocal on “My Daily Wish” before Branch pays tribute to Junior Wells on “Yonder Wall”. Zora Young storms through “Be Careful How You Vote” in memory of her mentor, Sunnyland Slim, with Flynn and Iguana matching her intensity.

Some listeners may not be familiar with guitarist Carlos Johnson but that will change once they hear his impressive covers of “Somebody Loan Me a Dime” and “Ain’t Enough Comin’ In” . It takes courage to cover songs by two Chicago bluesmen with distinctive styles – Fenton Robinson & Otis Rush – but Johnson sings and plays with a heartfelt passion that will capture your attention. Lurrie Bell pays tribute to his father on “Got to Leave Chi-Town” with Branch on harmonica.

Not to be outdone, Ronnie Baker Brooks covers one of his father’s best-known tunes, “Don’t Take Advantage of Me” before delivering one of his high-energy performances on “Make These Blues Survive” with a healthy sample of his forceful guitar playing. The disc ends with a bonus track of “The Blues Had a Baby (and They Named It Rock & Roll)”.  Arnold, Primer, Branch and Bell share the vocal lead while Primer joins Flynn on guitar. It brings this release to a fitting close.

The packaging is first-rate with plenty of liner notes, wonderful photos and personnel listings as well as individual notes on each song. While some may fear for the future of blues music, this project offers a convincing rebuttal. There are still plenty of musicians around who can keep the music vibrant and meaningful. Make sure you do your part and buy a copy of this stellar release. Highly recommended !!

Reviewed by Mark Thompson

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