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CD REVIEW -- Howlin' at Greaseland
GLT blues radio


Various Artists

West Tone Records

Howlin' at Greaseland CD art

By Terry Abrahamson

        Several years ago, on a family trip to Hawaii, my sons Joe and Sam and I did a night hike on an active volcano. Okay, it was a guided, twenty-bucks-a-head tour for which recommended protective gear was defined as “not flip-flops.” Still, the lava flowed in streams about the same width as blood flowing from a beheading and if you didn’t step over it, you would definitely be feelin’ the Robert Johnson hotfoot.

        But it was real lava!  And here it was, incinerating everything in its path….as if previous layers of lava-turned-molten rock had yielded anything left to incinerate. Dawn of Time Lava! Creation of the Universe Lava! I was standing on a bleeping active volcano!!! The Earth was breathing… gasping…spitting fire. My spirit was gripped, shaking my very being clear down to the core.

        Kind of like the first time I saw Howlin’ Wolf.

         Summer break, 1969.

        It’s too long a tale to tell when a CD as important as Howlin’ at Greaseland is waiting for that well-deserved spotlight. Basically, I was spiritually deconstructed and reassembled by the primeval roar that signaled the creation of the Rock & Roll Universe. He stood as a giant, still growing in my memory with each electrifying return to the creaky stage in that half-empty room. He growled and he prowled and he revealed the glistening diamonds of Hendrix, Cream and the Doors as his own hard-edged pitch black chunks of coal. The Marvel Superhero of the music our mamas warned us about….poor farmboy Chester Burnett who lay at death’s door after asking for water but being forced to drink gasoline, resurrected, mentored and transformed by Charley Patton, a mysterious Delta guru of indeterminate racial origins, into the mighty Howlin’ Wolf, leading a colorful band of mutant musicians…..a loverboy sax-playing bandleader, a guitar wizard with invisible teeth, a bass player with a gravity-defying limp, one piano player in a jeweled turban and another who would live forever. An evil Back Door Man who could pitch a Wang Dang Doodle all night long. A man I’ve written about in theatre, on TV, in two books and in a song recently recorded by that 80-year-old loverboy sax player (a.k.a. Eddie Shaw). A man dwarfing every hall of fame that’s inducted him, whose photo, snapped by me at Joe Spadafora’s place, rumbles off the t-shirts his little girls wore to this year’s Chicago Blues Festival. I think about him every day. When we considered names for our first born, I gave my wife -- who up to that time thought “Howl & Wolf” was a duet --two choices: “Chester” and “Burnett.” She opted for Door Number Three. 

        Howlin’ at Greaseland is Alabama Mike, John Blues Boyd, Terry Hanck, Tail Dragger (not his real name), Henry Gray and Lee Donald singing Howlin’ Wolf songs battered in tar and rolled in broken glass by players who left me smelling the el train grease: sharing, validating and intensifying my lifelong obsession with the most powerful entertainer I’ve ever seen.

        Wolf is a tough guy to deify; how do you build a Mt. Rushmore to a guy who’s bigger than Mt. Rushmore?  In college, I thought The Howlin’ Wolf London Sessions got as close as it was possible to get: Wolf backed by Clapton, Winwood, Wyman and Watts….my gods, backing their god who was becoming my ultimate god; it was like Jesus inviting you to watch an eclipse through the hole in his hand!  Well, Howlin’ at Greaseland shows the limeys how it’s done. 

        “Meet Me in the Bottom” hits like a slingshot that left my brain in a whiplash collar. Alabama Mike doesn’t try to sound like Wolf…..but he harnesses that incinerating soul and rides it start to finish. Kid Andersen’s slide and Rick Estrin’s harp and Lorenzo Farrell on keys are so right that it’s transcendental;  for a minute I felt like I was back at that Hound Dog Taylor seance where you could actually smell the chicken frying in the motel room.

        It’s all like that. “Smokestack Lightning” finds John Blues Boyd strapped to the table in a Mississippi exorcism, with Estrin, Andersen and Rockin’ Johnny Burgin rasslin’ out the demons, one graveyard yodel at a time.

        When Terry Hanck plays his tenor on “Howlin’ for My Darlin’,” he puts Eddie Shaw right back there in front of the band, tonguing that reed and eyeballing every girl in the room. When the words stagger out of Terry Hanck’s raw-knuckled throat, you wanna believe he learned this one in prison. And his tale about his dad booking Wolf to perform at a “Shopping Center” in the 1960s left me wondering if this was the same guy who had set up the demonstration at Lincoln Village by the Duncan yoyo champ.

        Tail Dragger’s two slots (I am actually writing this while staring at -- on my wall -- an Eddie’s Place poster featuring Lee Shot Williams, Tail Dragger, Little Wolf and Jew Town which I tore off a light pole on Roosevelt Rd. in 1977!) on “I’m Leaving You” and “Don’t Trust No Woman” are close enough to the original “home laryngectomy that failed” Wolf sound to make a Tuvan throat singer drool. But it’s Mr. Dragger’s understanding of what Wolf did with his voice - delivering every syllable like it’s been dragged out of hell on a meathook - that’s downright… heartwarming? Yeah, it is.

        Henry Gray, who actually played piano and recorded with the Wolf…or at least it looks like him in the cave painting…does a “Little Red Rooster” that could be the most mournful song of all time.  Both the Willie Dixon barnyard classic and 92-year-old Gray’s equally suicidal “Worried Life Blues” are more about Wolf’s meta-oeuvre than the actual buried-alive-in-lava experience that was Howlin’ Wolf as celebrated by them other guys on this thing. That doesn’t mean Henry’s tracks don’t comprise a valued dimension of what must finally be acknowledged as a musical genre onto itself: “Howlin’ Wolf.” Like another offshoot of the Blues known as Rock & Roll, “Howlin’ Wolf” is just its own thing. And Howlin’ at Greaseland is an education in, and a celebration of, the man and the genre.

        Guitarists Andersen and Rockin’ Johnny and harp masters Estrin and Aki Kumar will be showered with well-deserved raves for all this. What will be less likely is: “Did you hear that bass on ‘Killin’ Floor’?  Honest to God; if you close your eyes you’ll swear it’s Chicken House Shorty!” The glam axes catch our ears because that’s how are ears are trained, but June Core, Derrick Dear Martin and Alex Petterson on drums and Robby Yamilow, Joe Kyle Jr, Vance Ehlers, Patrick Rynn and Mike Phillips on bass drive every built-up-from-the-ground cut for comfort and for speed. 

        Howlin’ Wolf had a lot of great songs, and probably a bunch of songs that were just okay until he sang them and they suddenly wrought hell on your vital signs. A CD like this could have gone on forever, and I did miss what a woman’s voice might’ve brought to it. But to approximate the power of this giant of our music and our history, you’ll never do better in ten songs - and four brief but glistening anecdotes - than Howlin’ at Greaseland. Like the man himself, the experience is nothing short of volcanic.

Terry Abrahamson won a Grammy by writing songs for Muddy Waters. He helped launch George Thorogood’s career and created John Lee Hooker’s first radio commercial, which are just a few of his accomplishments. Terry also is a playwright. He and partner Derrick Procell are currently writing songs with Joseph Morganfield, Nellie “Tiger” Travis, Eddy “The Chief” Clearwater, Eddie Shaw and Big Llou Johnson. He authored the acclaimed photography book, In The Belly of The Blues – Chicago to Boston to L.A. 1969 to 1983 -- A Memoir. His radio show, also entitled In the Belly of the Blues, airs Sundays on The Blues Show, WNUR-FM Evanston. His illustrated coffee table book,  The Blues Parade, will be published in 2018. 
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