Various Artists – Chicago/The Blues/Today! Vols. 1, 2, 3 | Album Review

Various Artists – Chicago/The Blues/Today! Vols. 1, 2 & 3

Vanguard Records

Craft Recordings

3 LP Deluxe Limited Edition

When these seminal albums were initially released in 1966, they helped to ignite the spark that started the transformation of the music heard in funky neighborhood Chicago blues clubs into a respected genre honored around the world. Featuring a number of the undisputed giants of the blues, the tracks provided listeners with music oozing with a primal energy that couldn’t be denied.

The project was the result of efforts by producer Samuel Charters, who managed to convince the owners of Vanguard Records to fund his dream project of recording a number of the blues artists he had been listening to for several years. Listening to these records, there is no question that Charters had an innate understanding of the music, as well as outstanding taste.

Released as part of this year’s Record Store Days promotion, Craft Recordings put together a fine package that treats the music with the respect it deserves. Utilizing analog remastering from the original stereo tapes and cut on 180 gram vinyl, the albums come in a tri-fold package that includes notes from Charters and writer Ed Ward, from a 1999 reissue on Vanguard, that delve into the historical significance of the music, and the efforts that were necessary for Charters to get the project going. Each album is enclosed in a slipcase that features reproductions of the original cover on one side and the original liner notes on the flip side.

The first album alone is worth the price of admission. The opening track, “A Tribute To Sonny Boy Williamson,” features Junior Wells and Buddy Guy, backed by Jack Myers on bass and Fred Below on drums. Wells gives a spoken introduction, then lays down a fitting memorial to one of his mentors. They do a hearty cover of the Wells classic “Messin’ With the Kid” before unleashing a haunting “Vietcong Blues,” as Guy’s jagged guitar runs drive home the leader’s lament over his brother in harm’s arm around the world.

It is a good bet that few listeners back in the day were prepared for what came next. J.B. Hutto and His Hawks – Herman Hassell on bass and Frank Kirkland on drums – tear into “Going Ahead,” then up the ante even further on a frenzied “Please Help,” centered on Hutto’s raw, booming vocals and cutting slide guitar licks over Hassell’s driving bass line. They continue with three more cuts on Side 2, with “Too Much Alcohol” and “That’s The Truth” maintaining the unrelenting energy and performances that surely were a hit in the clubs on a Saturday night.

The final five tracks shine the spotlight on Otis Spann, free from his spot backing Muddy Waters. Backed by S.P Leary on drums, Spann aptly demonstrates his skill on the rollicking instrumental “Marie,” then shows off his vocal talent on the slow blues “Burning Fire”. Another instrumental, S.P. Blues,” finds him interpreting the style of Little Brother Montgomery. He closes things out with more glorious playing in the boogie mode on “Spann’s Stomp”.

Vol. 2 is full of equally memorable performances from the James Cotton Blues Quartet, the Otis Rush Blues Band, plus Homesick James and His Dusters. Cotton, backed by Spann, Leary, and James “Pee wee” Madison on guitar, is in his prime, singing and blowing harp with a vengeance, with nods going to “Love Me Or Leave Me” and particularly “Rocket 88” as examples of his muscular style. His stirring vocal turn on “West Helena Blues” is another highlight’

Possessing one of the finest voices in blues history, Otis Rush had an instantly recognizable sound on guitars well. Backed by a band including Luther Tucker on guitar, Rush starts off with an instrumental, “Everything’s Going To Turn Out Alright,” sparked by Robert Crowder’s alto saxophone solo. An up-tempo cover of “It’s A Mean Old World” gets things rolling. Side 2 opens with a rendition of the classic “I Can’t Quit You Baby, a hallmark of Rush’s career for his soaring vocal. “Rock” is a taut guitar workout, then Rush ends with “It’s My Own Fault,” offering a gripping performance that enlivens the blues standard.

With Willie Dixon on bass and Kirkland once again behind the drum kit, Homesick James Williamson cranks up his slide guitar for four tracks. The spirit certainly moved him on “Dust My Broom” as evidenced by his rousing vocal. “Somebody Been Talkin’ ” utilizes an unusual shuffle rhythm while a cover of Elmore James’ “Set A Date” is a natural fit for Williamson’s slide guitar. The disc closes with the original “So Mean To Me,” with Williamson once again singing with a fierce intensity throughout.

The final volume starts off with six numbers by the Johnny Young Blues Band, with Young on guitar and vocals, Big Walter Horton on harmonica, Hayes Ware on bass, and Elga Edmonds on drums. The power of Young’s voice is a highlight on every track. Horton blows some exemplary harp on “My Black Mare” and “Tighten Up On It”. Young was one of a few blues mandolin players, which he demonstrates on the jaunty run-through of “Stealin’ Back”.Even better is the slow blues shuffle “I Got Mine In Time,” with the lighter sound of the mandolin offering a fitting contrast to Young’s rough vocal.

The Johnny Shines Blues Band opens Side 2. Horton is on harp, Kirkland on drums, Floyd Jones on bass, and the leader on guitar and vocals. Shines was a commanding acoustic blues artist who, like many others, made the transition to the electric blues style once he made it to the big city. Another artist with a big voice, he comes out firing with a rowdy take of “Dynaflow Blues,” playing some slashing slide guitar licks. Horton makes his presence felt right from the jump on “Black Spider Blues,” weaving intricate harp fills around Shines’ vocalizing. Horton’s contributions are equally stellar on “Layin’ Down My Shoes And Clothes,” as Shines attempts to moan and shout his blues away.

Horton takes over the lead for one track, adding “Memphis” Charlie Musselwhite for a harmonica instrumental workout, “Rockin’ Boogie”. Horton is out front, with Musselwhite answering from deep in the mix. Then it is back to Shines for two final original tunes – the grinding “Mr. Boweevil” sans Horton leading into “Hey Hey,” a sturdy shuffle that finishes the album on a high note.

Charters captured all of these artists in their prime, at a time when blues music had not yet moved into the mainstream and began to be diluted by musicians with nothing more than a passing knowledge of the blues traditions, and limited instrumental skills that were offset by bigger amplifiers. All of these artists lived the life, preached the blues. Twelve of them have a spot in the Blues Hall Of Fame, which is further testimony to the significance of these albums then, now, and forever.

Issued in a limited quantity, this set deserves a spot in every blues collection. For LP junkies, it falls into the “must have” category, making it highly recommended!

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