Various Artists – Howlin’ Wolf & His Wolf Gang | Album Review

Various Artists – Howlin’ Wolf & His Wolf Gang

Wolf Records CD 120.203

16 songs – 80 minutes

When sax master Eddie Shaw took out a lease on the old Club Alex on Chicago’s West Side in 1975 and rebranded it as the New 1815 Club, he hired Howlin’ Wolf to headline his grand opening. It was an easy choice. After all, in addition to being a bar owner, he was also the bandleader of the blues giant’s backing band, the Wolf Gang, an aggregation that included guitarist Hubert Sumlin, sax player Eddie Shaw and keyboard player Detroit Jr., too.

Fortunately for blues lovers everywhere, Hannes Folterbauer – the future co-founder of Vienna-based Wolf Records – was in the audience with friends from Austria that weekend and with permission from Wolf’s wife, Lillie, to do some recording, and five tracks from those nights appear on disc for the first time ever.

Captured seven months before his passing, Wolf’s strength was obviously waning and his health failing because of kidney disease, heart failure and other undiagnosed issues, and his performance provides serves as a footnote to one of the most important musical careers ever. The true jewels of this set, however, are the 11 other tracks that display Shaw, Sumlin and Detroit as stars themselves.

Captured live between 1978 and 1996 at the 1815, at ACME Studio in the Windy City and in Vienna, this disc features extensive liner notes from Living Blues magazine co-founder Jim O’Neal and a virtual who’s who of future Chicago stars in supporting roles, including guitarists John Primer, Johnny B. Moore and Vance Kelly along with Homesick James and Eddie Vaan Shaw, harp player Billy Branch, bassists Willie Kent, Bob Anderson, Small Blues Charlie and Shorty Gilbert and drummers Kansas City Red, Ted Harvey, Tim Taylor and Robert Plunkett with Leo Davies and Joachim Palden sitting in on keys.

Shaw blazes out of the gate on the reeds to open with “Highway 61 Bound,” a tribute to the road that links New York City with the Gulf of Mexico through Clarksdale, where “my baby’s waitin’ on me.” He slows things down for the stop-time complaint, “Fannie Mae Jones,” noting he’s “paid the cost to be the boss” and feeling “just like a chicken with his head cut off” because she’s set him free. He dips into Willie Dixon’s songbook to cover two Wolf standards — “Built for Comfort” and “Little Red Rooster” – before closing with the original uptempo set-closer, “Got to Go Now.”

Wolf takes center stage for the next half-hour beginning with a languorous take on “Big House” before covering Robert Lockwood Jr.’s “Take a Walk with Me” and bracketing the self-penned “Laid Down Last Night” and “Don’t Deceive Me” around Chick Willis’ “After a While.” The sonic differences between what came before and what follows is noticeable throughout despite modern studio manipulation.

A true character at the keyboard, Detroit Jr. penned several classic numbers, including “Call My Job,” which has been covered by Albert King, Son Seals, Lil’ Ed & the Blues Imperials. A plea for a day off after having too much weekend, it precedes “Race Track,” about his buzzard betting on horses, before closing out with “You’ve Been Laid,” a description of his lady’s face in the morning after cheating the night before.

The best is yet to come, however, with Sumlin ripping and running on his original, “You Can’t Change Me,” as Branch lays down tasty counterpoint runs on harp. The loping “No Place to Go” follows before “I’ve Been Gone” brings the action to a close.

A time capsule of the way the blues used to be in Chicago, this disc has its flaws but there’s enough to like to make an old-timer like me smile. Give it a listen and you’ll be grinning, too.

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