Various Artists – Ann Arbor Blues Festival 1969 – Vols. 1 & 2 | Album Review

Various ArtistsAnn Arbor Blues Festival 1969Vols. 1 & 2

Third Man Records

Vol. 1 – 11 Tracks/73:26

Vol. 2 – 11 Tracks/73:03

One of the watershed moments in the history of blues music, the !969 Ann Arbor Blues Festival brought together twenty-four blues artists, virtually every one with Hall of Fame credentials, for a three day fest in early August on the campus of the University of Michigan – Ann Arbor. Thanks to Third Man Records, the label owned by Jack White, listeners can now be transported back to a time when the giants did indeed walk the earth.

The two disc set comes in a four panel gate-fold case, with both sides of the panels filled with black & white photos of the performers and audience in varying sizes. Also included is a twenty-six page booklet with additional photos, two essays that recount details of the weekend, and track listings that include the various musicians playing on each cut, some of whom remain unidentified. The notes also explain that no recording exists of the Sleepy John Estes and Yank Rachell performance and that a Freddie King track is not included at the request of the guitarist ‘s estate. (Note: The LP versions of the set each include extra tracks. Vol. 1 has Pinetop Perkins doing “Pinetop’s Boogie Woogie”. Vol. 2 has a Big Bill Hill announcement plus bass man Big Mojo Elem doing “Mojo Boogie”.)

One caveat for the set is the sound quality, which varies from track to track. Done by Jim Fishel on tape, these are audience recordings that have been stored for the last fifty years. Third Man Records used all of the latest technology to improve the sound when possible. Most tracks have reasonable sound that makes this historical project a viable entity. And these are indeed audience recordings, as you will hear at various points, as chatter from listeners appears out of nowhere during a performance, particularly during an intense moment of Luther Allison’s medley “Everybody Must Suffer/Stone Crazy,” as a woman’s voice materializes, talking and laughing in dramatic contrast to the music surging around her. Fortunately, her interlude doesn’t last long, and the other moments when the audience intervenes are minimal.

The first volume starts off with Roosevelt Sykes on piano, doing a salacious run-through of “Dirty Mother For You”. Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup’s “That’s All Right” served as an inspiration to Elvis Presley. At the festival, he turned in a loping turn on “So Glad You’re Mine,” his bold voice accompanied by his rhythmic electric guitar picking and a bass/drums section. The sound quality on ‘Too Much Alcohol” is poor but that doesn’t diminish the intensity of the performance by J.B. Hutto & His Hawks. “I Wonder Why” features Jimmy “Fast Fingers” Dawkins’ razor sharp guitar work, then Junior Wells gets backing from Lefty Dizz on guitar for a tune he often covered, “Help Me”.

One revelation occurs on “I’ve Got A Mind To Give Up Living,” as B.B. King goes deep into the blues, playing a lengthy opening solo that sets the stage for a stark, moving vocal with Sonny Freeman & the Unusuals providing solid support. Honoring a request, Mississippi Fred McDowell plays the traditional “John Henry,” using his slide guitar to create a driving rhythm. Allison proves that his live shows never lacked the amazing intensity he was famous for on his long medley. Things shift to the creole music of Louisiana as Clifton Chenier charms the audience singing and playing his accordion unaccompanied on the “Tu M’as Promis L’amour/You Promised Me Love”. Howlin’ Wolf is at his primal best on “Hard Luck,” his deep voice singing the blues with Hubert Sumlin and Lucky Lopez Evans on guitar and Detroit Junior on piano. Taken from the preview show at the Hill Auditorium, Otis Rush gives a splendid run-through of “So Many Roads, So Many Trains,” one of the better sounding tracks on the collection.

The second disc continues the parade of blues giants, starting off with Muddy Waters doing one of his classics, “Long Distance Call,” with all-star backing from Pee Wee Madison and Sammy Lawhorn on guitar, Paul Oscher on harmonica, Pinetop Perkins on piano, and Willie “Big Eyes” Smith on drums. Not to be outdone, Charlie Musselwhite gets the festival swinging with the instrumental, “Movin’ And Groovin’,” his hot harp licks riding the foundation set up by the Aces – Louis Myers on guitar, Dave Myers on bass, and Fred Below on drums, plus Freddie Roulette on lap steel guitar. Festival attendees also had the opportunity to see the dynamic Magic Sam, who’s soaring voice and frantic guitar picking on “I Feel So Good” had to be a highlight of the event. Shirley Griffith was a little-known country blues artist, but he acquits himself quite well on “Jelly Jelly Blues,” alone with his electric guitar. With help from Allison and a horn section, T-Bone Walker reminds listeners why his style influenced so many blues artists on his hit, “Call It Stormy Monday”.

Things get lowdown one more time, with Walker contributing incisive guitar work in support of the powerful voice of Big Mama Thornton on “Ball And Chain”. The crowd noise seems to inspire Big Joe Williams, who delivers a rousing take of “Juanita,” his fingers dancing across the fretboard of his nine string guitar. Another classic, “Key To The Highway,” features legendary drummer Sam Lay on lead vocals and Luther Tucker on guitar. Lay and his band also back-up Lightnin’ Hopkins on a fierce interpretation of “Mojo Hand”. Then the James Cotton Blues Band lays down thirteen minutes of glorious musical excitement, featuring plenty of the leader’s hard-hitting harp blowing on Little Walter’s “Off The Wall”. The disc closes with Son House testifying on the origin of the blues. Then he illustrates his remarks with his slide guitar on a somber take of “Death Letter Blues”.

One quick review of the list of artists that appear on this collection should be all it takes for most blues fans to make a purchase. Complete with plenty of details and pictures in addition to many stirring performances by true giants of the music, these two discs make it clear that the 1969 Ann Arbor Blues Festival did indeed feature possibly the finest line-up of any blues fest, ever! Forget about sound issues or crowd noise. Instead, be ever so thankful for this opportunity to go back in time to relive portions of this historical event.

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