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CD Review -- Various Artists



Billy Boy Arnold, John Primer, Billy Branch,

Lurrie Bell and more

Raisin' Music

Chicago Blues: A Living History CD art


By Linda Cain

 Barack Obama has done more than anyone since Michael Jordan to represent Chicago to the world.  But predating Obama, predating Jordan, was the blues, as only the City of Big Shoulders could deliver. A proud and towering legacy it is, too: Muddy, Willie, the Wolf, Little Walter, Sonny Boy and other past masters are no longer with us in fact, but in spirit the current generation of Chicago blues masters is honorably carrying on the tradition left to them. The indisputable evidence of this is on Chicago Blues: A Living History, a two-CD set featuring an all-star lineup of the city’s finest bluesmen paying deeply felt tribute to the giants of yore.


Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Otis Rush, Sonny Boy Williamson (#1 and #2), Big Bill Broonzy, Big Maceo, Elmore James, Tampa Red, B.B. King, Memphis Slim, Little Walter, Jimmy Reed, Junior Wells, Earl Hooker, Magic Sam and John Lee Hooker are covered by an all-star cast. Billy Boy Arnold, James Cotton and Buddy Guy are the three living honorees.


Billy Boy Arnold, John Primer, Billy Branch and Lurrie Bell are the headliners, all chosen for their direct connection to blues history and for carrying on the traditional style of Chicago blues. Special guests include guitarist/vocalist Carlos Johnson and singer Mike Avery. The Living History Band is stellar as well, including Matthew Skoller (harmonica), Billy Flynn (guitar), Johnny Iguana (keyboards), Felton Crews (bass) and Kenny "Beedy Eyes" Smith (drums)--all top performers, session/sidemen, recording artists and (in three cases) bandleaders in their own right who have worked with many blues legends. Google them, it's worth the time.


Chicago Blues: A Living History comes with a 24-page Chicago blues history booklet complete with vintage B&W photos and insightful bios and essays explaining the significance behind the chosen artists and songs and how they fit into Chicago's blues history. The CD gatefold packaging includes a colorful, vast photo montage of players past and present, plus a huge listing of the names of many Chicago blues artists who were not included in this tribute.


Therein lies the challenge for producer Larry Skoller and the assembled artists on this 21-song collection: what to include, what to eliminate from the bottomless well of available music. That the work of artists such as Willie Dixon, Koko Taylor, Bo Diddley, J.B. Lenoir, J.B. Hutto, Hubert Sumlin, Otis Spann, Sunnyland Slim and many others were not included may raise a few hackles. But given the rich history of Chicago blues, it would take volumes of CDs to honor each and every influential artist.


Nonetheless, within this collection, producer Skoller (brother of blues harpist Matthew) provides a serviceable overview of the evolution of Chicago's most famous musical genre, encompassing the years 1949 to 1991. The performances are often breathtaking and will have you flipping through the liner notes to find out "Who was that player?"


Disc 1: 1940-1955 successfully evokes the bygone era depicted in the booklet's vintage B&W photos of Chicago juke joints.  Recorded in analog, with attention to retro mic-ing styles, the production crew took great care to combine old and new technologies, resulting in old-style music that is fresh sounding. Billy Branch, John Primer, Lurrie Bell and bandmates were encouraged to put their own spin on these tunes, rather than mimic the signature sound of the original blues titans.


The exception is Billy Boy Arnold, a vast repository of blues, from back in the day right up to the present. Born in 1935 and still remarkably youthful, Arnold dominates Disc 1 with his easygoing vocals and seminal blues harp stylings that influenced Brits like the Animals and Yardbirds. A harp player since the age of 12 (he was taught by John Lee "Sonny Boy" Williamson),  Arnold kicks off the disc with his mentor's 1940 gem, "My Little Machine." The expressive harpman wraps his pleasant, smooth voice around Tampa Red's "She's Love Crazy," Big Bill Broonzy's "Nightwatchman Blues" and "Memphis Slim USA."  Arnold covers his "own self" on "I Wish You Would" from 1955.


Piano players ruled the blues during the era before electric guitars. Keyboardist Johnny Iguana dominates the ivories on both discs, with his vast knowledge of historical styles. The skilled Iguana man plays solo on Big Maceo Merriweather's thunderous boogie woogie instrumental, "Chicago Breakdown," attacking the keys with such fury as to make one wonder if he might have grown an extra set of hands! No wonder Junior Wells plucked Iguana from his Philly home to play in his band.


Disc 2: 1955 to Present follows the blues as it grows into the modern era. By the '50s and onward, electric guitars dominated the music, and innovators such as B.B. King, Elmore James, Earl Hooker, Magic Sam, Otis Rush, John Lee Hooker and Buddy Guy became heroes to future generations of string benders and sliders. Chicago guitarists John Primer, Lurrie Bell, Carlos Johnson and Wisconsin's Billy Flynn cover these guitar gods with creativity, panache and passion.


The versatile Flynn (who was tapped to play on the soundtrack of Cadillac Records) provides much of the heavy lifting--playing everything from slippery slide guitar on Elmore James' "I Believe" to nimble-fingered soloing on B.B. King's "Three O'Clock Blues" and Magic Sam's "Out of Bad Luck."  Flynn totally hooks it on the1965 instrumental "Hookin' It," showing how far ahead of his time Earl Hooker was with his single-string slide and echo effects.


Primer's haunting slide playing on Muddy's 1948 slow blues, "Feel Like Going Home," is simply spine tingling. The former bandmate to Waters, Willie Dixon and Magic Slim leads a rollicking cover of Muddy's upbeat "Sugar Sweet" from '55 and howls away on the Wolf classic, "Moanin' at Midnight," from '51.


The late '50s saw the rise of a generation of gifted harp masters. Born in 1951, Billy Branch reigns as one of the world's best harp maestros (he also gets a big tip of the hat for creating the Blues in the Schools programs to educate young people in the basics of this vital American music). He learned directly from the post-war innovators Big Walter, James Cotton, Junior Wells and Carey Bell, and played in Willie Dixon's band in the '70s. As the official torch bearer for contemporary Chicago blues harp, deploying all manner of masterful techniques to make the tiny instrument sound like an orchestra, Branch barely needs a backup band. The baritone-voiced artist authoritatively inhabits classics such as Junior Wells' "Hoodoo Man Blues," in a tour-de-force performance. Branch struts his complex signature style on Cotton's "One More Mile" and Little Walter's "Hate to See You Go."


Living History bandmate Matthew Skoller, another innovative harp player, songwriter and bandleader on Chicago's blues scene, contributes outstanding playing on three cuts, most notably on "Your Imagination" by his biggest influence Sonny Boy Williamson #2 (Rice Miller).


Vocal highlights include Lurrie Bell's tortured lament, as well as his emotion-drenched guitar, on Willie Dixon's dirge-like "My Love Will Never Die," immortalized by Otis Rush. The son of late harp virtuoso Carey Bell, Lurrie has seen his own share of real blues and pours his soul into the music. On "Damn Right I've Got The Blues," Lurrie sounds like he's having a blast covering Buddy Guy, in whose club he can often be found blazing the blues on his axe.


Cousin to Magic Sam, Mike Avery is an outstanding, soulful singer rooted in R&B; unlike most blues belters, he goes for, and hits, high notes. Check out his the ease with which he soars to the rafters on his cousin's "Out of Bad Luck" and on B.B. King's "Three O'Clock Blues."


Special guest guitarist/vocalist Carlos Johnson, a versatile Chicago artist who mixes blues with jazz, country and funk, brings Disc 2 into contemporary blues territory with the final two numbers. Johnson plays the part of Carlos Santana on John Lee Hooker's "The Healer" with Billy Branch's blues harp bringing the jazzy Latin number to sweet home Chicago. He closes the album by tearing into Buddy Guy's 1991 hit, "Damn Right I Got the Blues," with a no-holds-barred guitar assault. (FYI: Johnson regularly performs at Buddy's club Legends.)


In the end, maybe the best news to impart about this first-rate Living History collection is that its title comes to life almost every day, as these same artists keep the spirit alive and well in Chicago's blues clubs and at festivals. In their capable hands, the spirit of the past is honored even as their performances escort the genre into the future.  For more info visit:


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