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CD REVIEW -- Willie Buck
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Willie Buck Way

Delmark DE-857
Willie Buck Way CD

By Dave Whiteis

          Vocalist Willie Buck, now in his eighties, is recognized as one of the relatively few still-active Chicagoans whose careers extend back to the storied postwar blues era.   He wasn’t really a major figure in those days, but he was definitely a presence in the clubs, and sometimes on the bandstand, as figures like Muddy Waters, The Aces, Little Walter and others were codifying the sound now known worldwide as Chicago blues.  His recorded legacy is rather sparse – he has released a couple of albums on his own Bar-Bare label, as well as a handful of 45s, and this is his second outing on Delmark – but over the years he has become a beloved figure on the Chicago club scene, both as a headliner on his own and as a guest sitting in with various bands around town. Buck’s style is patterned closely after Muddy’s; he always features a few of Muddy’s standards in his sets, and even most of his own compositions reflect the great man’s influence.  (That’s not to say he can’t venture afield when he wants to – as early as 1975, he recorded a funk-propelled “Disco Blues” on the Chicago-based IRC label, an outing that became an unexpected local and regional blues hit for a while.)

           Despite his usual fealty to the traditional Chicago sound, Buck has done his best to remain contemporary, at least as a lyricist – the title song of his previous Delmark outing, 2012's Cell Phone Man, gives a good indication of the kind of thing he does when he wants to take on more modern themes.  This time out, he’s come up with twelve new originals, and although none address concerns quite as self-consciously cutting-edge as “Cell Phone Man,” it’s obvious that to Buck, the blues are a living, breathing presence, both in music and in life.  Nonetheless, the overall sound remains resolutely old-school: a listener might be forgiven for thinking these tracks were outtakes from some forgotten 1957 Chess session, as harpists Scott Dirks and “Big Spider” Beck, pianist Johnny Iguana, venerable bassist Bob Stroger, and drummer Jimmi Mayes recreate that fabled sound with almost eerie verisimilitude.  As if to drive the point home, Buck also includes a few standards – “Crawlin’ King Snake,” “Blues Before Sunrise,” Muddy’s “How Deep Is the Ocean” and “Please Have Mercy” – in the mix, along with a fresh offering from guitarist Billy Flynn, “Can’t Say Something Good About Me,” which sounds as if it could have been culled from one of those same legendary sessions. 


          At this point in his life, Willie Buck can’t really be considered a major stylist; his ideas remain rooted in the tried-and-true, and even within those limitations he’s never been what one might call an innovator.  (Remember: Muddy, Wolf, John Lee Hooker, Elmore, and their contemporaries were neither “purists” nor “revivalists” – they honored roots by re-inventing them, creating a new music that took the blues to places it had never been before.)  Nonetheless, for this session, Delmark has surrounded him with ace accompanists who are almost as rooted in the tradition as he is, and their unerring chops and deep feel for the music give him both the freedom and the necessary structure to coax out the best he has in him. Just don’t expect anything revolutionary or new – in many ways, and despite the obvious passion Buck and his band still have for the venerable sounds they recreate so faithfully here – a session like this is more like a recital than a juke-joint party. On those terms, Willie Buck Way succeeds well.

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