various artists,
Now This is What We
Call the Blues, Vol. 420

(Telarc, 2003)

Blues compilations can be a great way to turn on to blues artists you might not be exposed to otherwise, especially since the genre contains so many notable recordings. Through blues compilations and anthologies I was finally able to hear and fall in love with the music of many artists I'd wondered about: Son House, Darby & Tarlton, Magic Sam, Lightnin' Hopkins, Curley Weaver, Buddy Moss and others. Thus, when you slip into the CD changer a sampler like Telarc's Now That's What We Call the Blues, Vol. 420 (the very title poking fun at the fact that the market has recently been flooded with such compilations), one expects to come away from the session with a list of artists to look for and CDs to buy. It pains me deeply to report that this isn't the case.

Perennial road warrior and blues bar favorite Tinsley Ellis kicks off the sampler with the self-penned "Hell or High Water." Ellis's lead playing has grown greatly over the years, his once-derivative Texas blues stylings now sounding more self-assured and personal than was the case with his early recordings for Alligator Records. However, his nimble fretwork and tube-scorching tone can't raise the song above the fact that the song is nothing more than a reworking of the Don Nix classic "Palace of the King," right down to the closing double-stop riff that was the trademark of the Freddie King original.

Next up, New Orleans Telecaster-slinger Tab Benoit delivers "Fast and Free." Benoit has a fine voice and fronts a truly tight rhythm section (Carl Dufrene, bass; Darryl White, drums). While the song itself is steeped in swamp-bred Louisiana soul, Benoit's lead guitar breaks are splattered with missed strings and flat notes.

One would hope that veteran Chicago harp player James Cotton might be able to pick up the pace with some of his legendary virtuosity. His instrumental workout "The Creeper" gets off to a promising start, and his band proves that they're worth Cotton's paycheck. However, after a few choruses the tune runs out of steam, becoming an overly-long and tiresome jam devoid of dynamics and replete with mandatory "Jingle Bells" quotes courtesy of the harmonica playing frontman.

Being a fan of acoustic blues, I was particularly anxious to hear the next track, "Get Right Church" by Paul Geremia, but was disappointed by his overly enthusiastic, effects-laden vocals and rasping, rattling 12-string slide sound.

Luckily, things pick up a bit with the next two cuts: "Hard Times" by the Hoodoo Kings and "Big River" by Charlie Musselwhite. "Hard Times" deals up heapin' hot slabs of Cajun funk and a warm, crystalline, almost poppy guitar sound from Rafal Neal. Singing in a raspy, weathered voice that owes more to Bob Dylan than Muddy Waters, Musselwhite reworks the Johnny Cash chestnut as a loping, Chicago-style shuffle, and is joined by former Saturday Night Live band members G.E. Smith and T-Bone Wolk. Smith provides some tasty, perfectly played guitar fills and turnarounds, and together the band plays like a unit that's spent years trundling their amps onto every bandstand on Maxwell Street.

"Nice and Warm" brings Tab Benoit back to the studio, this time in an all-star jam session with former Nighthawks guitarist Jim Thackery and Double Trouble members Chris Layton (drums), Tommy Shannon (bass) and Reese Wyans (keyboards). Benoit and Thackery provide eminently experienced but ultimately road-weary instrumental chops, serving up none of the guitar heroism worthy of the rhythm section that gave Stevie Ray Vaughn's sound its backbone.

At this point, the warm, acoustic sound of Paul Rishdell's old National resonator guitar and Annie Raine's harmonica provides a much needed break from the preceding 60-watt electric shuffles. Their heartfelt rendering of the traditional hymn "I Shall Not Be Moved" provides one of the few self-sustaining bright spots on this collection. Not content to merely mimic the delta blues greats whom he obviously admires, Rishdell makes the song and the blues his own, his rich, nuanced vocal readings perfectly complimented by Raine's pure southern gospel backing harmony. His voice is easy, yet powerful and expressive. His slide guitar work provides all the precision, personality and depth that Geremia's lacked.

Two more great performances follows. The first is delivered by guitar-playing blues/soul vet Joe Louis Walker. G.E. Smith returns to the studio with T-Bone Wolk, and the two sidemen again earn their paychecks. Walker's "In the Morning" is a solidly produced slab of rhythm and blues, replete with the great vocals and guitar work that one would expect from an anthology featuring the sort of blues legends that Telarc has collected here.

One can always depend on Ronnie Earl for providing masterful guitar playing in any context. "Twenty Five Days" is a return to the blues after several CDs of Kenny Burrell inspired jazz. The Band's Levon Helm makes a surprise guest appearance on drums.

The guest appearances continue as the Cate Brothers join the returning Jimmy Thackery for "Where'd My Good Friend Go." Thackery and Earl Cate trade some nice guitar riffs, but Thackery's phlegmy vocal stylings are quite distracting. (Where is his former Nighthawks bandmate Mark Wenner when you need him?) Luther "Guitar Junior" Johnson provides the last electric cut on the album: "Crazy Over You" is a workmanlike Stax-styled R&B shuffle with some nicely charted horn fills but little else to distinguish it.

At least the sampler closes with a winner. Colin Linden serves up a surprisingly effective acoustic blues arrangement of the Beatles' "Blackbird." Linden's voice and fingerpicked resonator guitar sound give the song a comfortable, swampy edge -- as though Paul McCartney had co-written the song with Tony Joe White.

Based on the material that the label has served up to us in this sampler, I'd say look for Telarc Blues CDs by Rishdell-Raines, Walker, Earl and Linden. As for the rest, perhaps most of these guys should avoid recording studios -- at least for awhile -- and stay in the bars where they can best serve humanity. For a blues lover such as myself, this is a painful condemnation to make.

- Rambles
written by Timothy Truman
published 8 March 2003

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