various artists,
American Blues
(Putumayo, 2003)

American blues? Is there any other kind? Maybe the title to this collection of modern, mostly African-American artists is there to warn you that you're not at risk of purchasing a bunch of recycled Long John Baldry, John Mayall, Cream and early Rolling Stones cuts. Not that you're likely to be looking for such, though there was a time ... well, I'm sure I'm not the only European-American to have first heard of Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf and Bo Diddley in the grooves and on the back covers of mid-1960s Stones albums. My blues initiation, specifically, came when I heard Mick Jagger singing "Little Red Rooster," which I later learned was a Howlin' Wolf hit written by Willie Dixon. Even in Jagger's rendering it was unlike anything I'd heard or even imagined possible.

Thousands of hours of blues immersion later, those road-to-Damascus moments can be no more, though I still sense something of a small, deliciously uneasy chill as I hear the hard-core types -- Paul "Wine" Jones, T-Model Ford, Robert Belfour, the late Junior Kimbrough -- who record for Matthew Johnson's attitudinous yet irresistible Fat Possum label. There is a Fat Possum cut here, but it's by its most mainstream performer, onetime deep-soul star Solomon Burke, who still sounds good (on, in this instance, "None of Us Are Free"). Though hardly adventurous, this collection is tasteful and pleasurable, and how could you not love a recording graced with artists who carry monikers like Taj Mahal, Sugar Pie Desanto and Sunpie Barnes?

Well, of course we've all heard of Taj Mahal, who is never all that distant from the blues, especially its most rooted variants, but only to the ignorant and inattentive easily pigeonhole-able as a bluesman. But "Cakewalk Into Town," from a 1972 album, is one of his pure bluesman moments, a good-time original which in sparer, rawer form could have been played by a jug band on a Memphis street corner in the 1920s. Besides this, the downhome sides include the '50s-Chicago sound of Henry Gray ("How Could You Do It") and the traditional spiritual "Needed Time" lovingly done by Eric Bibb, son of folk-revival figure Leon Bibb. Harp player Sunpie (Bruce Barnes) contributes the one instrumental, "Sunpie's Romp and Stomp," a pumping bayou-meets-Chicago shuffle that has surely charged up many a dance floor. Chris Thomas King's "Why Blues," on the other hand, fuses older styles with some 21st-century musical ideas. Though it's not the sort of thing I'd expect to like, it turns out to be an expertly executed performance, a testament to the open-ended quality of a genre generally thought to be anything but.

Mostly, though, the blues according to American Blues is the sort of uptown stuff conjured up half a century ago by B.B. King (who's here on the opening cut with Arthur Adams, on "Get Next to Me") and T-Bone Walker. By the 1960s and '70s Stax-inflected soul vocals and funk rhythms were being integrated into blues, along with -- often less interestingly, to my hearing -- rock licks. There is little of the latter here, however, and a fair amount of the former. Ruth Brown was not a Stax artist, but her influential recordings on Atlantic in the 1950s helped to shape a new genre out of gospel roots and blues sensibility. Her "Good Day for the Blues," from a 1999 comeback album, reminds us how it's done.

All in all, this is a worthy sampling of modern blues in its assorted expressions. Wisely eschewing the usual suspects, the compilers highlight fresh songs and superior performances, whether the artist is famous or unknown outside a small regional circuit. That makes American Blues something rather better than just another blues collection.

- Rambles
written by Jerome Clark
published 21 February 2004

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