John Lee Hooker Jr.,
All Hooked Up
(independent, 2012)

Mighty Sam McClain,
Too Much Jesus (Not Enough Whiskey)
(Mighty Music, 2012)

Remembered for his distinctive country-blues-boogie sound, the late John Lee Hooker is a seminal figure in blues history. John Lee Hooker Jr. is his son literally, in other words not in the sense that non-relatives have sometimes claimed family links to famous performers in the blues. (For years, to cite an instance, somebody fashioning himself Howling Wolf Jr. worked the ghetto club circuit in Chicago.) Muddy Waters has two sons, Big Bill Morganfield and Larry "Mud" Morganfield, who keep their father's sound -- electric blues with Mississippi echoes -- happily alive in clubs, on stages and in recording studios.

The younger John Lee Hooker, however, is very much out on his own. Nothing beyond the name would lead you to presume a genetic relationship. Based in the Bay Area, Hooker Jr. is in every way a 21st-century bluesman. There is none of the blues' rural past in his muse. This is loud, unrelenting big-city material, fashioned out of blues but owing just as much to soul, funk, gospel and jazz. If you're open to this sort of approach, it's pretty good. Attentive listening exposes first-rate songcraft, tight and imaginative arrangements and a striking intensity of performance.

Except for three co-writes with producer Larry Batiste, the lyrics are all from Hooker Jr.'s pen, with music provided by the studio band. Like much blues since the beginning of the form, the bulk of the material is derived from first-hand experience, in this instance the singer's recovery from serious substance abuse and his adoption of religious faith. No, it's not preachy. The songs are straight-forward and unsentimental, and powerfully delivered. The only clunker here is "You Be My Hero," the sort of jingoistic rant one would ordinarily associate with Nashville blowhards of the Hank Williams Jr./Toby Keith school. "Hero" isn't exactly at that level of unspeakableness -- nothing could be -- but it's under the same roof. I am entirely in favor of respect for our military. Blind worship, which this is, is something else, and not healthy in a democracy.

Mighty Sam McClain's Too Much Jesus (Not Enough Whiskey), a more low-key, old-fashioned sort of record, is an immersion in 1960s-style soul, blues and gospel. McClain has been around since this style (associated prominently with the Stax label) arose. You'd need a sour heart to dislike this good-natured album, which carries 14 McClain originals, all but one written with guitarist and longtime associate Pat Herlehy, the other ("Real Thing") with New Orleans legend Allen Toussiant.

The title song exemplifies McClain's particular kind of charm. Most of it consists of a warning about the perils of neglecting the Bible for the bottle, but toward the end, the tone changes. McClain chuckles, then allows as how a good stiff drink from time to time has its place, too. The album resounds with warmth and humor. McClain knows who he is, and he knows how to make the good stuff sound even better.

music review by
Jerome Clark

16 February 2013

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