The Kentucky Headhunters – Live At The Ramblin’ Man Fair
Alligator Records – ALCD 4988
12 songs – 54 minutes
Despite playing music professionally for decades, Grammy-winning roots rockers The Kentucky Headhunters had never toured outside North America before venturing to the UK and Sweden in 2016, kicking off with a concert date in London before recording this live set in front of an enthusiastic audience in Maidenstone, Kent, a few days later.
That might come as quite a surprise for fans considering that the core group – guitarist Richard Young and drummer brother Fred and lead guitarist/cousin Greg Martin first started playing together as Itchy Brother in Edmonton, Ky., in 1968. Taking their name from a character on the King Leonardo And His Short Subjects cartoon series, they began as Southern rockers and Nashville songwriters, but turned toward the blues in 1970 after playing Robert Johnson’s “Crossroads” during a TV performance.
The trio became Music City studio musicians and songwriters at famed Acuff/Rose Publishing in the ‘70s during the heyday of disco, but reformed as the Headhunters in 1986, adding Doug Phelps on bass. The name was borrowed from Muddy Waters’ early ensemble because of their prowess “cutting heads” when facing off with other outfits in battle-of-the-band competitions.
Playing a mix of blues, honkytonk and rock with country crossover appeal, the Headhunters quickly built a career that included stops at Mercury, Nonesuch/Elektra and other labels, garnering a 1991 Grammy for their debut release, Pickin’ On Nashville. This album is their second on the Alligator imprint, a follow-up to Meet Me In Bluesland, a collection of previously unreleased recordings with keyboard player Johnnie Johnson, best known for his legendary career alongside Chuck Berry.
This disc also includes three more Johnson tracks, which features Itchy Brother founder/cousin Anthony Kenney on bass. Backing vocals on one of the live cuts are provided by the band Black Stone Cherry, and that unit’s drummer, John Fred Young – Richard’s son, sits in on percussion.
After a brief intro, the Headhunters roar out of the gate with a take on “Big Boss Man,” turning the Jimmy Reed standard into a full-force blues rocker, before the rock-steady “Ragtop” sings praise of driving a convertible and “Stumblin’” offers up an invitation to a lady to join the singer on the dance floor while he’ll be “shakin’ like a chicken instead.”
The pace slows slightly, but the intensity continues with the Southern rocker, “Shufflin’ Back To Memphis,” before the band launches into an updated, six-minute version of Freddie King’s ballad, “Have You Ever Loved A Woman,” putting Martin’s fiery guitar skills on display and proving beyond question that the Headhunters have a solid understanding of straight-ahead blues.
The rocker, “Wishin’ Well,” penned for a proposed but unrealized European tour in 1978, precedes the slide-guitar driven “Walking With The Wolf” – not a tribute to Chester Burnett, but the description of a lady walking in the woods. “My Daddy Was A Milkman,” first heard on the Headhunters’ debut album, follows before a cover of John Lennon and Paul McCartney’s “Don’t Let Me Down” – aided by Black Stone Cherry – brings the live action to a close.
Blues purists will be pleased with the three Johnson studio recordings, which were captured in 2003, when the Headhunters were recording the album Soul. Two covers — Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup’s “Rock Me Baby” and Tommy Tucker’s “Hi-Heel Sneakers” – bookend the original, “Rock ‘n’ Roller.”
Available from most major retailers, Live At The Ramblin’ Fair – like the band itself – has great crossover appeal. If you’re a rocker at heart or have country leanings, there’s plenty here for you to enjoy. And if you’re a dyed-in-the-wool blues purist, there’s plenty here for you, too. Rock solid, and a lot of fun.