Shoji Naito – Westmont To Chicago – A Tribute To Eddy Clearwater | Album Review

Shoji Naito – Westmont To Chicago – A Tribute To Eddy Clearwater  

Ogden Records

15 songs – 56 minutes

Well, this is a tasty treat. Shoji Naito moved to Chicago from Japan in 1996 to study the blues. He has since developed into one of the mainstays of the Windy City blues scene, being equally comfortable on guitar, harmonica and bass, and holding down long-term gigs with the likes of Billy Branch and the Sons of Blues and Morry Sochat and the Special 20’s. His primary gig from 2004 however was with the much-loved and much-missed Eddy Clearwater.

After Clearwater died in 2018, Naito and the other members of Clearwater’s band started work on a tribute album to The Chief and the result – Westmont To Chicago – is not only a magnificent and loving accolade to a great musician and a great person, but is also a belting recording of classic Chicago blues that commands respect on its own merits.

Featuring 15 tracks, all of which had special meaning for Clearwater, Westmont To Chicago includes four tracks that Clearwater himself recorded in 2015, together with 11 tracks featuring Naito and various members of Clearwater’s band plus some well-known Chicago blues greats.

The four new Clearwater tracks include a cracking cover of Magic Sam’s “I Need You So Bad” that may lack some of Sam’s distinctive trebly guitar, but Clearwater’s guitar playing retains all the nuances and subtleties that makes Chicago blues guitar so wonderful to listen to but so difficult to play. “You Don’t Have To Go”, the old Jimmy Reed classic, features Clearwater backed just by Naito’s harmonica and Ariyo’s piano but emphasizes the power and depth of The Chief’s voice. “Reconsider Baby” is also given a stripped-down interpretation, with Naito and Junior Edwards providing their boss with note-perfect backing, while Little Junior Parker’s “Stranded” has full band backing and some glorious guitar from Clearwater.

But there are highlights throughout this album. The brilliant Willie Buck takes the vocal mic for “Deep Blue Sea Blues”, an updated “Catfish Blues” with marvellous guitar from Junior Edwards, and a rollicking version of “Don’t Go No Further” where Billy Flynn’s closing solo is worth the price of admission by itself. Naito’s harmonica duets sweetly with Jake Takagi’s ukele on the instrumental “Greyhound Harmonica Jam”, while Win Noll’s vocal on “Find Yourself” contains just the right amount of vulnerable assertiveness. Ginny Morin and Lee Kanehira breathe new life into Sippy Wallace’s “Women Be Wise” and Tom Crivellone leads the band in a version of Clearwater’s own “Crossover” that would wake the dead. Kanehira’s piano adds real depth to a number of tracks.

Naito is an outstanding musician – his riotous slide playing on the closing track “Ogden Avenue” includes deliberate and very impressive nods to Muddy Waters, while his harmonica on “Like The Creeper” is stunning – but this is an album of classic Chicago blues, in which immaculate playing always supports the song. There are famous covers, less-famous covers and a number of tracks composed for the album. They are all played with deep emotional commitment and obvious love and respect for Mr Clearwater.

Recorded by Brian Leach and mastered by Blaise Barton at Joyride Studio in Chicago, Westmont To Chicago is a magnificent tribute to Eddy Clearwater and a top drawer recording of classic Chicago blues. If you like traditional Chicago blues, it is a pretty essential purchase.

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