Friday, February 2, 2024

The View On Pop Culture: Buddy Guy, The Black Keys, Bernard Allison, Kim Wilson (2003)

Buddy Guy's Blues Singer LP


These are good times for fans of the blues. Old salts like Buddy Guy and R.L. Burnside are putting out some of the best work of their lengthy careers while young pups like David Jacob-Strain and Richard Johnston are keeping the flame alive with brilliant albums of their own. Blues festivals are flourishing, classic albums from legends like B.B. King, John Lee Hooker and Skip James are being reissued on CD (some for the first time) and a generation of kids have been turned on to the music through blues-oriented garage rockers like the White Stripes. As any fan of the genre could tell you, though, there are many different shades of blue and every single one has its own voice…

At this point, blues guitarist Buddy Guy really has nothing left to prove. His work during the ’60s for Chess Records is considered some of the best Chicago blues recorded while his collaborations with harp player Junior Wells are the stuff of legend. Guy has three Grammy Awards on his shelf and has influenced guitarists from Jimi Hendrix to Stevie Ray Vaughan. Yet Guy still managed to break new ground with his excellent 2001 album Sweet Tea, recorded in the Oxford, Mississippi studio of the same name. With Blues Singer (Silvertone Records), Guys furthers his considerable legacy.

A collection of traditional blues songs performed acoustically with little or no accompaniment, Blues Singer presents another facet of Guy’s talents. While some purists have criticized the album for being too contemporary sounding, pandering to a white rock audience – heck, even Eric Clapton stops by to jam – they’re really missing the point. Collaboration has long been at the root of the blues, why should it be any different now? Guy’s performances suggest that the bluesman is attempting to broaden his palette at an age when many artists are content rehashing the golden moments of their career. Blues Singer offers many stellar performances, from Guy’s chilling take on “Hard Time Killing Floor” to the deliberate, funky reading of “Black Cat Blues.” Songs by blues giants like Son House, Willie Dixon, and John Lee Hooker all receive an acoustic reinvention on Blues Singer, the album another high point in Buddy Guy’s storied career.  

The Black Keys' Thickfreakness
The Black Keys
– the duo of guitarist Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney – bring a different perspective to the blues, drawing on fifty years of crossbreeding between the genre and rock ‘n’ roll. Heavily influenced by the Mississippi Hill Country tradition and artists like R.L. Burnside, the Black Keys are grungier than the North Mississippi All-Stars, louder than the Soledad Brothers and more soulful than any half-dozen “dirty blues” bands you care to choose. The pair’s sophomore recording, Thickfreakness (Fat Possum), picks up where their critically acclaimed debut left off, mixing bent-note blues and rocking riffs with reckless abandon.

In fact, much of Thickfreakness sounds like Auerbach and Carney have been listening to their Eric Clapton record collection, the title track and “Hard Row” especially playing like contemporary power blues a la Cream. They bring a modern garage rock sensibility to their sound, however, shooting for rawness and recording on “medium fidelity” equipment. With only a guitar, drums and vocals, the Keys craft a dense sound that is as muddy as the Mississippi River and as powerful as a thunderstorm, Auerbach adding swirling guitar leads on top of thick chords and Carney’s potent percussion attack. The result is an electrifying blues-rock brew, songs like the shambling “Have Love Will Travel” or the dark, provocative “I Cry Alone” literally jumping off the turntable, crackling with life and energy. The Black Keys delivered one of last year’s best albums in The Big Come Up and it looks like they’ve topped themselves with Thickfreakness.        

Bernard Allison's Kentucky Fried Blues
For a musician, it can be hard forging a career in the shadow of a famous father’s footsteps…just ask Big Bill Morganfield or the Dickinson brothers. As a second-generation bluesman, Bernard Allison – son of the legendary guitarslinger Luther Allison – has done just fine, thank you. The younger Allison honed his craft as a member of Koko Taylor’s touring band, joining his father’s band in the late-80s. Allison has released a number of solo albums since his European debut some fourteen years ago, including a couple of live sets, but none are as incendiary as Kentucky Fried Blues (Ruf Records), a recording of a 1999 performance at the W.C. Handy Blues Festival in Henderson, Kentucky.

His father and his father’s famous friends may have influenced Bernard Allison’s musical education, but the myriad recordings in his father’s record collection pointed the way towards his future. Chicago blues, Texas six-string blues, ‘70s-styled soul and funk all inform Allison’s playing, which is an intriguing combination of all of his influences. With Kentucky Fried Blues, Allison stretches out and explores the many facets of his musical experience, including sultry Memphis soul (Don Nix’s “Going Down”) and traditional blues (a smoking 18-minute version of Buddy Guy’s “Leave My Girl Alone”). Cover’s of his father’s “Midnight Creeper” and “Bad Love” show that the apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree. Allison is a distinctive guitar stylist and a dynamic performer. Fans of real guitar blues will find a lot to like about Kentucky Fried Blues.     

Kim Wilson's Lookin' For Trouble
Kim Wilson
is best known to audiences as the frontman of the Fabulous Thunderbirds. He’s kept that band rocking coast-to-coast across four decades now and it doesn’t look like the T-Birds are going to run out of steam anytime soon. That’s not to say that Wilson doesn’t like a little somethin’ different on the side, though. The harp maniac’s solo career may not be as prolific as that of his legendary blues band, but it still puts a lot of wannabe bluesmen to shame. Lookin’ For Trouble (MC Records) is just the latest in a string of musical homeruns for Wilson, a solo album so raw and edgy that youngsters like Jack White should be taking notes.  

Lookin’ For Trouble is filled with gen-u-ine roadhouse blues, Wilson capturing the sound and feel of vintage ‘50s houserockin’. Although Wilson says in the liner notes that he didn’t set out to make a “retro” sounding album, his love of traditional blues can’t help but rise to the top. With guitarist Tony Gonyea and backing from a top-notch rhythm team, Wilson kicks out fifteen red-hot rockers on Lookin’ For Trouble, scorching tunes that blow the doors out and the walls down. Whether he’s cranking his harmonica full stop on originals like “Hurt On Me” or knocking down swinging covers like Willie Dixon’s classic “Love My Baby” or Snooky Pryor’s “Tried To Ruin Me,” Wilson brings a spirit and energy to his music that is missing from much of the Top 40. A fine introduction for the novice fan, Wilson’s Lookin’ For Trouble is a perfect example of the blues done right. (View From The Hill, 2003)

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