West Tone Records
14 tracks / 45:46
Though his name was Chester Arthur Burnett when he was born in Mississippi early in the last century, blues fans know him as Howlin’ Wolf – one of the most influential of the Chicago bluesman. He recorded many songs that are now considered classics, and he was a savvy businessman who could afford to surround himself with only the best musicians. Wolf passed away over 40 years ago but his work is still popular and relevant, as evidenced by the new tribute album, Howlin’ at Greaseland.
Kid Andersen is the king of Greaseland Studios, and if you are a west coast blues artist, his San Jose, California studio is the number one facility to make your music the best it can be. Andersen is the longtime guitarist for Rick Estrin and the Nightcats, and this experience as a working musician gives him special insight as a producer and engineer – he really knows all sides of the business, and has the technical knowledge to make an artist’s dreams a reality.
Howlin’ at Greaseland includes ten of Wolf’s classic songs that are fronted by some fabulous California and Chicago cats, including Alabama Mike, John “Blues” Boyd, Terry Hanck, Tail Dragger Jones (who got his nickname from Wolf), Henry Gray (Wolf’s piano man), and Lee Donald. There are actually 14 tracks, but four of them are studio narratives from the artists that serve to both educate and entertain the listener. The set kicks off with Alabama Mike’s take on “Meet Me in the Bottom,” and his edgy vocals are accompanied by Anderson on guitar and Rick Estrin on the harmonica. Apparently the all-star cast goes deeper than just the singers!
John “Blues” Boyd is featured on a trio of tracks, including a sweet rendition of “Spoonful,” “Riding in the Moonlight,” and the ever-popular “Smokestack Lightnin’.” Boyd’s voice is weathered and perfect for these songs, and Estrin’s leads are killer as the backline of Joe Kyle Jr. and Derrick Martin hold down the bottom end. The latter song includes some righteous howling from John, which really makes the tune complete.
Terry Hanck tells a hilarious story about a time in the 1960s when his dad hired Wolf for a shopping mall gig, and then grabs the reigns for a hopping take on “Howlin’ for My Darling.” Hanck takes care of the vocals and sax for this track, which features the guitar of Johnny Cat (best nickname ever) and the honky-tonk piano of the Grammy-winning Jim Pugh.
Tail Dragger recounts how he got his nickname from Howlin’ Wolf, and on this disc his vocal style comes closest to how Wolf delivered his music. He knocks down “I’m Leaving You” and “Don’t Trust no Woman” with Johnny Burgin on guitar and the amazing Aki Kumar the harmonica. Lee Donald also fronts one song, and “Forty Four” is a throwback piece with heavy drum work from June Core and vocals that are heartfelt and powerful.
These songs are all outstanding, but getting to hear Henry sing and play his piano is really special. “Worried Life Blues” and “Little Red Rooster” should be required listening for any young folks who are thinking of playing the blues. This guy is on the other side of 90 and is still bringing his “A” game to the table; he is truly a treasure of American music.
Howlin’ at Greaseland is a solid tribute to one of blues music’s greats, and it is delivered in a well-recorded and slickly produced package. Though there is a different line-up for each track, they all have a consistent sound and work very well as a whole, Any fan of Howlin’ Wolf or the classic blues styles will find nothing to gripe about here. Give it a listen for yourself, and see what you think!