Sunday, July 3, 2016

CD Review: Alligator Records 45th Anniversary Collection (2016)

Alligator Records 45th Anniversary Collection
When blues fan Bruce Iglauer formed Alligator Records in 1971 to release an album by Chicago blues stalwart Hound Dog Taylor, little did he know the journey he had begun. Forty-five years and hundreds of album releases later, Alligator Records is the second longest-running independent blues label in America (lagging behind his mentor Bob Koester’s Delmark Records imprint). It could be said (and I’d argue this ‘til I’m ‘blue’ in the face…) that Alligator has done more to define and shape blues music than any other institution, and the label’s back catalog features classic albums by legends like Son Seals, Koko Taylor, Lonnie Brooks, Otis Rush, Johnny Copeland, and too many more to mention.

This year, Alligator celebrates its 45th anniversary and, as is Iglauer’s tradition, the label has released a two-disc, budget-priced compilation set that showcases the label’s wealth of talent. The Alligator Records 45th Anniversary Collection provides listeners with a taste of the diverse styles of blues that has been released by the label through the years, powerful music that ranges from the harp-driven blues of James Cotton, Carey Bell, and Charlie Musselwhite to powerhouse female vocalists like Koko Taylor and Shemekia Copeland to skilled six-string maestros like Anders Osborne, Luther Allison, and Smokin’ Joe Kubek.

Alligator Records: 45th Anniversary Collection

Disc one of the Alligator Records 45th Anniversary Collection opens with the ever-raucous Lil’ Ed & the Blues Imperials, one of Iglauer’s favorite gang of houserockers. The band kicks out the jams with “Hold That Train,” from their 2008 album Full Tilt. Befitting one of the hardest-working bands in the blues, Lil’s Ed’s guitar licks shimmy and shake while the talented band lays down a locomotive rhythm that sends the performance into the stratosphere. The mood changes considerably with Son Seals’ “Cotton Picking Blues,” a slow-burning blues number from his 1973 debut album for the label. A perfect showcase for Seals’ unique and powerful fretwork, “Cotton Picking Blues” is one of those tunes that simply defines the blues genre.

Shemekia Copeland is one of the best blues singers on the planet today, and if you don’t believe me, just listen to her reading of her legendary father Johnny Copeland’s “Devil’s Hand.” Her emotional vocals soar above the band’s sparse instrumentation, wrapping around the lyrics like an iron fist in a velvet glove. The late, great Koko Taylor showcases her own not insignificant vocal abilities with the powerful “Voodoo Woman.” Taken from Taylor’s 1975 album I Got What It Takes, the performance pairs Koko’s hurricane-strength vocals with Mighty Joe Young’s wiry, provocative guitar licks to great effect. Selwyn Birchwood is one of Alligator’s recent finds, a talented young songwriter and fretburner whose “Don’t Call No Ambulance” is a fine boogie-rocker that displays his fiery guitar style and soulful vocals.

The father and son team of Carey and Lurrie Bell offers up two talented generations of bluesmen, Carey’s smoky vocals and subtle, classical blues harp providing a fine counterpoint to the teenaged Lurrie’s elegant finger-picking on “The Road Is So Long,” from the pair’s 2004 album Second Nature. Original Alligator houserocker Hound Dog Taylor lays down an unabashed boogie with his swinging, infectious “Take Five,” from his 1974 album Natural Boogie. Lest one think that these are the only good tunes on disc one, there are also solid, rockin’ performances by artists as diverse as Elvin Bishop, Toronzo Cannon, Tommy Castro, Charlie Musselwhite, Joe Louis Walker, Anders Osborne, and Mavis Staples, among others, to consider.

James Cotton, Luther Allison & Michael “Iron Man” Burks

Disc two opens, appropriately, with the legendary James Cotton’s “Cotton Mouth Man,” from his 2013 album of the same name. Cotton lost his voice due to cancer some time ago, but the man still blows a mean harp, and it rages up and down, over and under this performance while Darrell Nulisch delivers the vocals and Cotton’s buddy Joe Bonamassa tears up the strings, his galloping fretwork a perfect match to Cotton’s rampaging harp. Albert Collins, a/k/a the “Ice Man,” was a cool customer, indeed, and as shown by his scorching performance of “If Trouble Was Money,” the man knew his blues. Collins’ vocals evinced more than a little of his native Texas patois, but it was his guitar that did most of the talking on this song from the guitarist’s 1983 Live In Japan album.

Talented singer, songwriter, and guitarist Jarekus Singleton is another major find for Alligator, the young artist turning full-time to music after a career-ending injury derailed his dreams of pro basketball. Singleton’s label debut, Refuse To Lose, is the source of “I Refuse To Lose,” an inspirational, high-flying blues number with hip-hop overtones and biographical lyrics. The late Michael “Iron Man” Burks was well on his way to blues superstardom when fate intervened; his sizzling “Empty Promises,” from the 2008 album Iron Man, is a solid example of Burks’ talents. Burks’ soulful vocals infuse the lyrics with heavy gravitas while his devastating guitar playing provides an emotional catharsis. Curtis Salgado’s personal story could have been similarly tragic – the man has beat cancer twice – and he lays it out for the listener in the biographical “Walk A Mile In My Blues.” Above a nuanced, bluesy soundtrack with jazzy flourishes, Salgado sings his tale of woe with authority and heartbreak.

Legendary blues-rock guitarist Johnny Winter recorded three solid albums for Alligator back in the 1980s, and his performance on “Shake Your Moneymaker,” from 1986’s classic Third Degree, captures the Texas bluesman rockin’ the rafters with a wired take on the R&B standard that offers up plenty of flamethrower guitar and growling vocals. A.C. Reed was a Chicago blues favorite, contributing his red-hot sax to a number of artists’ albums. Here he steps out with “She’s Fine,” from his 1987 album I’m In The Wrong Business! A duet with Bonnie Raitt, her moaning slide guitar is a perfect accompaniment to Reed’s subtle tones. One of the giants of blues guitar, Luther Allison is well represented by his Alligator recordings. Taken from 1999’s Live In Chicago, “Will It Ever Change?” offers five minutes of Allison’s scorching, imaginative guitar and warm vocals. Want more? Disc two also includes songs by Roomful of Blues, Guitar Shorty, Billy Boy Arnold, Ann Rabson, and the Holmes Brothers, among others.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

What’s not to like? The Alligator Records 45th Anniversary Collection offers up two discs of guaranteed “genuine houserockin’ music” taken from across the entire four-and-a-half decades of the label’s existence – 37 fantastic performances in all from some of the best and brightest talents the blues has had to offer in both the 20th and 21st century.

Bruce Iglauer and his merry crew show no signs of slowing down, so I thoroughly expect to revisit the Alligator catalog again in five years for the label’s big 5-0 anniversary. In the meantime, the Alligator Records 45th Anniversary Collection provides long-time fans with a reminder of the quality of music the label has to offer and serves as a great introduction to Alligator’s rich catalog of blues for the newcomer. Grade: A+ (Alligator Records, released June 10, 2016)

Buy the CD from Alligator Records 45th Anniversary Collection

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Pride and Joy: The Story of Alligator Records

Pride and Joy: The Story of Alligator Records DVD

Filmmaker Robert Mugge, director of Deep Blues and Big Shoes, helped the venerable Alligator Records celebrate its 20th anniversary with Pride and Joy, part documentary and part concert film. Reissued for the first time on DVD, the film offers interviews with Alligator main man Bruce Iglauer, his mentor Bob Koester, producer Dick Shurman, and several of the label’s artists as well as behind-the-scenes footage of the label’s operation.

It’s the music that speaks the loudest, though – superb performances from Alligator’s anniversary tour feature Lil’ Ed & the Blues Imperials, Elvin Bishop, Katie Webster, Lonnie Brooks (with son Ronnie), and Koko Taylor. A raucous, show-closing, all-star jam on “Sweet Home Chicago” reminds one of just how good the blues can be. (MVD Visual, released April 22, 2016)

Buy the DVD from Pride and Joy

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