CD Review: Various Artists Chicago Blues: A Living History (Raisin Music)

This excellent double-CD finds a collection of first-rate contemporary Chicago players, some with roots going back to artists active in the peak years of the ’50s and ’60s, laying down a veritable history of Windy City blues and covering everyone from Sonny Boy Williamson
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This excellent double-CD finds a collection of first-rate contemporary Chicago players, some with roots going back to artists active in the peak years of the ’50s and ’60s, laying down a veritable history of Windy City blues and covering everyone from Sonny Boy Williamson to Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter, Junior Wells, Otis Rush, Magic Sam, Jimmy Reed, Buddy Guy…it’s a helluva list. Why not just put out an anthology of the original artists playing these tunes? Because this approach shows the vitality of the music today, and how new interpretations by different players steeped in the styles of their forerunners can bring out previously unheard dimensions of the Chicago blues sound. Though I consider myself fairly well-versed in the classic Chicago styles of the past, the key singers here—with the exception of Billy Boy Arnold—were new to me, and it’s an impressive group of leaders, including John Primer, Billy Branch, Lurrie Bell, Mike Avery and Carlos Johnson. Billy Flynn is a superb guitarist adept at various blues styles, and the rest of the small band—pianist/organist Johnny Iguana, bassist Felton Crews, drummer Kenny Smith and harmonica player Matthew Skoller—clearly know and understand this music very well. The group wisely avoids the best-known and most iconic Chicago blues “hits,” choosing (mostly) lesser-known material instead, and to their credit they don’t strictly imitate the masters, but rather capture the feeling of each’s approach. My own personal taste runs more toward the ’40s and ’50s material, so I’m partial to disc one. I especially like Arnold’s take on Bill Broonzy’s “Night Watchman Blues” and Avery’s version of B.B. King’s “Three O’Clock Blues.” (No, B.B. was not a Chicago guy, but he influenced many Chicago players.) On disc two I really dig the haunting take on Otis Rush’s “My Love Will Never Die,” and the alternately sensual and bopping Earl Hooker instrumental, “Hooking It,” driven by Flynn’s cool wah-wah guitar stylings. In fact, everything here is cool, at the same time it’s undeniably hot.

Must Plays: “Night Watchman Blues,”“Hooking It”

Producer: Larry Skoller. Recorded, mixed and mastered by Blaise Barton. Studio: JoyRide (Chicago).