Various Artists – Big Road Blues – Matchbox Series, Set 8 I Album Review

Various Artists – Big Road Blues – Matchbox Series, Set 8
Nimbus Records – 2022
CD1: Furry Lewis In Memphis – 15 tracks; 52 minutes
CD2: Little Brother Montgomery, Home Again – 12 tracks; 45 minutes
CD3: The Legacy Of Tommy Johnson – 16 tracks; 43 minutes
CD4: Big Road Blues – 16 tracks; 46 minutes
CD5: Blues From The Delta – 9 tracks; 37 minutes
CD6: Viola White, Miss Rhapsody – 11 tracks; 42 minutes

Blues Blast writer Steve Jones recently reviewed volumes 5-7 in this massive series of reissues from the UK-based Nimbus Records and here we have Set 8 in the series. This time around the material was recorded in the late 60’s to early 70’s and some of this material therefore benefits from the relatively modern equipment available. Of the six discs here five are being reissued and one is previously unreleased. The discs are accompanied by detailed and informative notes about the recording sessions, in some cases the actual sleeve notes from the original releases.

CD1 takes us to Furry Lewis’ room in Memphis on 6 September 1968 where German blues enthusiast Karl Gert zur Heide recorded Furry on guitar and vocals, using a simple tape recorder. Furry declined a request to play “Beale Street Blues”, after which he simply played what he wished, probably a mix of what he fancied playing and what he thought his visitors might like to hear. The sleeve notes emphasize that Furry was a highly visual performer and that his ‘show’ contained elements of his medicine show routine as well as straight blues; he was also not one of those blues artists to be “rediscovered” in the 60’s, as he had continued to play regularly since his debut in the 1920’s (although recordings were less frequent).

He opens with “St Louis Blues”, quite appropriate as he got his first decent guitar from WC Handy himself. The longer “Furry Lewis’ Blues” has some pretty complex guitar work which Heide attributes to Charley Patton and Tommy Johnson influences and “When I Lay My Burden Down” contains elements of “The Battle Hymn Of The Republic” as well as some great slide work. “Kassie Jones” develops from the old tale of railway engineer Casey Jones (as in the Grateful Dead song) but incorporates what we would probably call rap today, adding some humorous touches; indeed, “Skinny Woman” has his audience in stitches. Familiar blues like “Going To Brownsville”, “John Henry”, “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean” and “Highway 61” follow, the latter being cut short by the tape running out, a fact that Furry did not notice, as he was so engrossed in his performance! There are also popular songs like “Careless Love” and “My Blue Heaven” and a couple of throwaway numbers like “Old Dog Blue” and the oddly named “Spanish Flang Dang”!

CD2 was recorded January 30 1972 in Chicago, with Little Brother Montgomery on piano, sounding fully recovered after a serious illness. He opens the set with an instrumental before paying tribute to one of his mentors, Cooney Vaughan, on “Tremblin’ Blues”. Montgomery demonstrates his mastery of the piano on “No Special Boogie”, a classic understatement of a title as Montgomery plays brilliantly with both hands, changing rhythms and speeds seemingly at will. We get another version of “St Louis Blues” which shows how good a pianist Montgomery was. Montgomery pays tribute to his wife on “Jan” and she returns the favor by singing on four numbers, apparently the first time people had heard her sing: “Aggravatin’ Blues” a popular number at the time, “Dangerous Blues” a rolling blues with outstanding accompaniment, “I Was So In Love With You” a ballad which she sings in a slightly deeper tone and there is also the classic Tin Pan Alley hit “After You’ve Gone”. On that last number Montgomery pulls out a startlingly different solo which galvanizes him and Jan to provide a fine conclusion to the session.

CD3 features twelve different musicians on songs that were all, at one time or another, part of Tommy Johnson’s repertoire. Johnson recorded just twelve songs in his lifetime, but efforts such as this one have added to our knowledge of the sort of music that he played during his career from the 1920’s to the 1950’s. These are field recordings made between 1966 and 1969, originally to support a book being written by David Evan and subsequently released in 1972. It is interesting that each of the performers learned these songs direct from TJ, yet his recorded versions are different to the ones heard here, suggesting that he did not play the songs in the same way each time or that he recorded them in a certain style, perhaps thinking that that was what the record company wanted. The artists involved here are all solo guitarists: Boogie Bill Webb on five numbers, Arzo Youngblood three, Houston Stackhouse two and Roosevelt Holts, Babe Stovall, John Henry ‘Bubba’ Brown, Isaac Youngblood and Mager Johnson appear just once each; mandolin players Herb Quinn and Dink Brister accompany on two numbers, as do guitarists OD Jones and Carey ‘Ditty’ Mason. The sound quality is pretty good and the guitar/mandolin combo on “Big Road Blues” makes a lively opener; a second version (again featuring mandolin, plus a second guitarist) allows comparisons to be made as this second version is played at a far faster pace. Similarly there are two versions of “Maggie Campbell Blues”, Boogie Bill Webb’s being a shorter, more informal take than Arzo Youngblood’s. There is also the song that gave its name to one of the most famous blues bands of the 60’s, “Canned Heat Blues” and one that Canned Heat covered, “Pony Blues”.

CD4 is previously unreleased. Originally intended to accompany another book by David Evans, the publisher folded and the book never appeared, so neither did the album. These are further field recordings made between 1966 and 1971 in Mississippi and Louisiana and some of the same artists as on CD3 reappear – Arzo and Isaac Youngblood, Roosevelt Holts and Mager Johnson; in addition we get Mott Willis, Willis Taylor, Cary Lee Simmons and Robert Johnson (no, not that one!). The recordings were made at the musicians’ homes and are all guitar/vocal performances of their own versions of folk-blues tunes from their regular repertoires. Several of the songs share lyrics and refrains, as has always been common in the blues and there is a stately instrumental “Riverside Blues” that has some fine playing. Mager Johnson gets out his kazoo on “Travelling Man Blues” and there are further versions of “Big Road Blues” (terrific version by Arzo Youngblood) and “Maggie Campbell Blues” to add to those on CD3, further emphasizing the importance of Tommy Johnson to the development of folk blues. A short take on “Catfish Blues” sounds entirely impromptu and “Who Is That Yonder Coming Down The Road” shares lyrics with several others songs of the tradition. “It Ain’t Gonna Rain No More” and “So Soon I’ll Be At Home” are both spirituals, rather than blues, reminding us how close the sacred and the secular can be in our part of the music world.

CD5 features four singers recorded in 1968, another companion album to a book. The four artists here are Scott Dunbar who plays three songs, James ‘Son’ Thomas, Lee Kizart and Lovey Williams getting two each. Dunbar’s vocals are higher-pitched than most of the singers on these compilations on his selections, “Big Fat Momma”, “It’s So Cold Up North” and “Jay Bird”, the latter being an extended tune with a spoken word element. The sleeve notes explain that Dunbar had an album released in 1971 but none of these selections were on it. “Cairo Blues” is the first of James Thomas’ songs, but it is not the song credited to Henry Spaulding from 1929, rather a tragic tale of a girl who drowned while following the narrator into the river; his other track is “Rock Me Momma” which will sound very familiar to everyone, being a version of “Rock Me Baby”. Lee Kizart was a piano player who performs a lively “Bottle Up And Go” and a blues from the peak period of the Delta music scene entitled “Don’t Want No Woman Telling Me What To Do”; unfortunately the sound is not quite as clear on these two tracks though it is a change to hear piano. Lovey Williams sings in a rough and ready vocal style on two songs which will sound familiar to blues fans: the lively “Train I Ride” is “Mystery Train” in thin disguise and “Rootin’ Ground Hog” sounds very much like John Lee Hooker to these ears.

CD6 was originally released in 1972 and was the first recording of Viola Wells since her 1944-45 Savoy sides, shortly after which she retired from music until the 1970’s. Back in the 1940’s she was regarded as being a cross between Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald, though, according to Benny Carter, “Billie never had as much voice as she has and Ella will never have her personality”. Viola performs with Reuben Jay Cole on piano, Eddie Wright on guitar, Ivan Rollé on bass and Danny Gibson on drums; on the sacred tunes she is backed simply by pianist Mrs. Grace Gregory who accompanied Viola each Sunday at her church in New Jersey. Viola sounds great on a set with plenty of familiar material, like the fine version of “Down Hearted Blues” that opens proceedings. Alternating blues and spirituals throughout, the next tune is “How Great Thou Art”, immediately followed by “See, See Rider”, complete with a nicely poised, jazz-inflected guitar solo. “In The Garden” is followed by Lil Armstrong’s “Brown Gal”, “His Eye Is On The Sparrow” by Benny Carter’s “Blues In My Heart”, a fine slow blues which is beautifully delivered. “Power In The Blood” and “Face To Face” are less familiar hymns, as are the two final secular tunes: “I Fell For You” evokes a smoky jazz club with brushed drums and piano the dominant instruments; “Old Fashioned Love” is the sort of tune that Billie or Ella would have sung and Viola does a good job.

The variety of instrumentation, excellent sound quality and diverse program make CD6 the pick of the set for this reviewer, but there is no doubt that these reissues are essential listening for dedicated blues lovers who want to explore more deeply the roots of our music.

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