Omar & the Howlers,
Essential Collection
(Ruf, 2011)

Based in Austin, Kent "Omar" Dykes is a big, beefy man with a big, beefy sound. The two-disc Essential Collection, surveying favorite cuts (live and studio) recorded between 1991 and 2008, will lift the spirits of anybody whose own collection lacks the essential ample supply of Omar & the Howlers. I was introduced to his music in the 1980s, when he was on Columbia for a release or two, but have only sporadic familiarity with his work since I reviewed a non-Howlers release, Dykes and Jimmie Vaughan's On the Jimmy Reed Highway, in this space on 26 April 2008. Two cuts from that album, one of them the splendid title song, are here on Collection.

The Howlers comprise whatever associates Dykes has trained to play with him for however long they choose to stick around, with him as the one constant. To be a Howler -- in other words to enable Dykes to bring his musical vision into practice and performance -- you have to be pretty good, and his bands always deliver. Dykes's vision is of blues and blues-soaked rock 'n' roll with a consistent Southern-roots sensibility. Done acoustically, a few songs here might sound something like country or folk.

The references are not hard to discern: Howlin' Wolf, Hound Dog Taylor, Robert Johnson, Jimmy Reed, John Lee Hooker (honored in Dykes and Steve Callif's "Boogie Man"), Bo Diddley (Dykes grew up in Bo's hometown of McComb, Miss.) and more. One clear, if unacknowledged, influence is Creedence Clearwater Revival, which made roots rock 'n' roll out of a synthesis of blues, r&b, rockabilly and folk. Dykes songs like "Border Girl" and "Mississippi Hoo Doo Man" could pass as John Fogerty compositions -- not a criticism, just an observation. I love Fogerty's sound, and there is nothing whatever wrong with Dykes's take on it.

The 30 numbers, mostly written or co-written by Dykes, at times voice standard blues themes, other times traffic in off-the-wall goofs or offer pointed social commentary. "Monkey Land" reprises a strain of humor popular in pre-war blues but since rarely heard, possibly because of its perceived racial overtones. Somehow, though, Dykes manages to evade that pitfall and demonstrate his chops as a genuine blues wit. His sterling arrangement of Oscar Brown Jr. and Nat Adderley's jazzy "Work Song" shows off his skills as an interpreter (as does his of Clarence Brown's wonderful "That's Your Daddy Yaddy Yo"), while his own "Stone Cold Blues," with its allusion to Johnson's "Hell Hound on My Trail," affirms his allegiance to the blues of the gut bucket -- a sound that's never very far away from anything Omar & the Howlers set themselves to: an exhilarating blend of old and new, united in grit.

music review by
Jerome Clark

31 March 2012

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