Omar Dykes,
Runnin' with the Wolf
(Provogue, 2013)

My first experience of the blues came courtesy of an early Rolling Stones cover of "The Red Rooster," originally written by Willie Dixon for Howlin' Wolf. In those unenlightened, blues-untainted days I had never heard of Willie Dixon (a major blues figure as performer, composer, producer and more), and to me a Howlin' Wolf would have been, well, just a howlin' wolf. Through the dense fog of cluelessness, however, I grasped that "Rooster" was something called "the blues," a form of music of which I had but the vaguest awareness. "Rooster" struck me as genuinely weird, even borderline scary. And this was before I heard Wolf's version.

Chester Arthur Burnett (1910-1976), who acquired the nickname "Howlin' Wolf" as a child, was as serious as blues business gets. Growing up in Mississippi, he hung out with and took his lessons from Charlie Patton and Robert Johnson. He was already a famous performer in the Delta, leader of the most rockin' electric blues band in the region, when he moved to Memphis in 1951 and recorded for Sam Phillips, soon himself to be legendary. Though Phillips would go on to produce the likes of Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison and Jerry Lee Lewis, he swore to the end of his days that Wolf was the greatest of all. "Howlin' Wolf," he memorably remarked, "is where the soul of man never dies."

By the mid-1950s, relocating to Chicago, Wolf signed with the influential Chess label. Label-mate Muddy Waters already ruled the Windy City's spirited blues scene, and soon he and Wolf were engaged in not always friendly competition for supremacy. Muddy is justly celebrated for his contribution to the electrifying of Mississippi's downhome blues; yet Wolf, who was older than Muddy, brought with him an even more elemental sound whose roots can be traced through Patton to the rural African-American music of the late 19th century.

Beyond his fierce, strangled vocals and the merciless boogies and shuffles, coupled with an outrageously titillating stage act, Wolf caused even hard-driving contemporaries to look polite and restrained in comparison. While deeply traditional in some senses (songs like "Spoonful" and "Smokestack Lightning" reworked Patton recordings, themselves derived from folk material), he was unforgettably one of a kind.

Omar Dykes -- usually billed as Omar & the Howlers -- is himself Mississippi-bred. A white man ("Omar" is a stage name; the real one is Kent), he absorbed the blues from local black musicians. He's been resident on the Austin scene for many years, but his sound has always borne the accents of country blues even when played as rock 'n' roll, albeit of a kind that somehow feels a whole lot older than its years. Hearing Dykes, I sometimes reflect that if electric instruments had been around a century ago, Southern folk music might have been something like this.

It's not hard to detect the influence of Howlin' Wolf in Dykes's music -- or for that matter in the name of his band -- all the way back to his early recordings three decades ago. Late in his career he's turned to repaying some debts, with two tribute albums (one with fellow Texas guitarist Jimmie Vaughan) to Jimmy Reed and a promised one to Bo Diddley. Whereas Dykes's treatment would give you the impression of Reed as a deeper bluesman than he was, the Wolf songs on Runnin' with the Wolf lack the raw fury of the originals. Dykes's deep-throated vocal -- one he employs on all of his recordings, in other words not an affectation for the occasion -- can only be an approximation of Wolf's. If hardly slick, it is not nearly so feral. Then again, few have ever sung, or indeed could sing, like Wolf. (Just one other bluesman comes to mind, the inexplicably neglected Tommy McClennan.) Dykes knows all this, of course. His liner notes are a model of modesty, grace, intelligence and self-awareness.

You listen to Runnin' for the Omar Dykes, and only secondarily for the Howlin' Wolf. And if you're a fan of Dykes, as I am, you will have the pleasure of hearing an exceptional American musician tackling exceptional American songs. Dykes does not try to assume ownership of these Wolf classics and obscurities. He's just borrowing them for his own purposes, and he does perfectly well by them, Omar Dykes style, which is quite enough.

music review by
Jerome Clark

3 August 2013

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