'Live' albums capture blues artists in natural setting
These three reissues of "live" albums from the Chess vaults showcase three top blues artists in their natural setting out of the studio and in front of a crowd. Etta James and the late Howlin' Wolf, especially, have reputations for being better in a club setting than in a studio.
This is, according to the liner notes, the only all "live" album Wolf recorded. Although by the time this was laid down in '72 Wolf's health was fading, he is still a powerful presence here, growling and howling and playing the harmonica with a vengeance.
He's surrounded by a crack band on this outing, including Hubert Sumlin on guitar, Eddie Shaw on tenor sax, and Sunnyland Slim on piano.
The last two songs "The Big House" and "Mr. Airplane Man" are bonus tracks, recorded at the same time but not included on the original LP.
If there's a fault here, it is in crediting Walter Vinson's (of The Mississippi Sheiks) "Sitting on Top of the World" to Wolf. The Sheiks (Vinson and Lonnie Chatmon) first recorded that song almost half a century before this album, and it is historically established that Vinson was the author of it.
The James set was recorded about a decade earlier, in 1963. James' rough and ready R&B was already in its prime, and this collection of 11 songs (the last three being bonus tracks from the same time, not on the original LP) includes both one of her biggest hits ("Something's Got a Hold On Me") and some outstanding covers, including such disparate songs as Ray Charles' "What'd I Say," B.B. King's "Woke Up This Morning" and Willie Dixon's "I Just Want to Make Love to You."
While not a perfect live album, or even James' best live set that nod would go to her two-disc set with Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson from the mid-'70s this is still a strong collection from her early years, showing both her hit-making potential and her knack for covering other artists' material.
While Waters is rightfully known for his own vast book of compositions, on his live album here he, too, shows he is anyone's equal at capturing the essence of someone else's song. Witness his covers of John Lee Hooker's "Boom, Boom," T-Bone Walker's "Stormy Monday Blues" and Jimmy Reed's "You Don't Have to Go." In each case, while the performance is stamped with Muddy's own persona, it also draws upon and pays homage to the original artist.
This album was recorded in 1971 at Mister Kelly's on Chicago's North Side. Muddy's band at this time featured James Cotton on harp, Pee Wee Madison and Sam Lawhorn on guitars, Pinetop Perkins on piano, Calvin Jones on bass and Willie Smith on drums.
At the time this came out, Waters was in the midst of finding himself placed in a variety of settings by Chess Records from the Super Blues sessions with other blues stars to the infamous "Electric Mud" psychedelic album to a session with much younger rock stars, all attempts to increase his popularity among the young white crowd. But "Live" is pure blues, pure Muddy, and he shows that he at least never lost sight of what he considered to be his musical voice and vision.
While none of these three discs is the artist's best or most influential work, each nevertheless presents an important aspect of the artist: their persona and performance style when in front of au audience. Each has clear sound quality, and is beautifully illustrated and amply annotated.
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