Various Artists – Ruf Records 20 Years Anniversary | Album Review

ruf20yearanniversarycdVarious Artists – Ruf Records 20 Years Anniversary

Ruf Recoerds 1208

28 songs – 119 minutes

In November 2014, the German record label, Ruf Records, celebrated its 20th anniversary. Just as Bruce Iglauer set up Alligator Records in Chicago purely to record and release the music of Hound Dog Taylor & The House Rockers, so Thomas Ruf established Ruf Records simply to record the great Luther Allison. 20 years later, Ruf Records is one of the world’s leading blues labels and it has now released a superb double CD of music celebrating its first two decades.

The 28 songs on the album feature a startling collection of modern day blues and blues-rock masters, reminding the listener of the astonishing contribution the label has made to the current music scene. Artists featured include such household names as Walter Trout, Royal Southern Brotherhood, Spin Doctors, Jeff Healey and Savoy Brown, as well as a number of less-well-known artists. Neatly, the album also includes a new unreleased song from the latest addition to Ruf’s family, Eliana Cargnelutti. Of course, given the quality of Ruf’s roster, deciding who to leave off this compilation must have been quite a headache. As it is, however, Ruf has released a superb two-CD album that serves both as a celebration of its first 20 years but also a top-class sampler of the artists it represents.

There are several fascinating aspects to this album. First, perhaps most obviously, is the fact that half of the tracks are contributed are by women. The two CDs are actually divided by gender, with “Girls with Guitars” on CD 1 and “Guys with Guitars” on CD 2. What might at first glance appear to demonstrate casual sexism (after all, nobody would consider releasing a two-CD set divided between black musicians and white musicians, or between tall musicians and short musicians) actually reinforces a serious point about Ruf Records – the label has always been extremely supportive of female musicians, both in respect of recording their music but also in respect of organizing tours to promote their music and their brand (the 2011 Ruf Records Caravan tour was similarly titled “Girls With Guitars”, featuring the likes of Samantha Fish, Cassie Taylor and Dani Wilde – all of whom appear on this album).

The international nature of the blues is also evident from the artists on the CD. In addition to American artists such as Joanna Connor and Mike Zito and British artists like Oli Brown and Aynsley Lister, Ana Popovic hails from Serbia, Meena is Austrian, Eliana Cargnelutti is from Italy, Erja Lyytinen comes from Finland and Thorbjørn Risager is Danish. While Thomas Ruf (with tongue firmly in his cheek) claims to intend to sign only artists from the USA and the UK, his continuing support for blues musicians from every country is laudable and should be celebrated.

Ruf’s slogan for many years has been “Where The Blues Crosses Over” and that crossover is plainly evident on this release. Many of the songs have a heavy rock or blues-rock influence. George Thorogood would have been delighted to have written Erja Lyytinen’s “Skinny Girl”. Kim Simmonds and Savoy Brown’s “Nuthin’ Like The Blues” has more than an echo of mid-era ZZ Top, while Royal Southern Brotherhood’s slide-laden “Rock And Roll” and Joanne Shaw Taylor’s “Can’t Keep Living Like This” are flat-out heads-down classic rock songs.

Given the number of different artists and the two decades worth of music included on the CD, however, there is a remarkably high degree of consistency in production quality across both CDs.

Highlights abound. The driving slide guitar and wall of horns on Thorbjørn Risager’s “If You Wanna Leave” rocks with irresistible force. Meena’s take on James Brown’s “Try Me” is a superb reinterpretation of an unheralded classic. And Candye Kane & Laura Chavez’s “Toughest Girl Alive” is a magnificent (if too-short) slice of swinging West Coast blues with a typically top-drawer guitar solo from Chavez (although you should ignore those people who say that Chavez is one of the best female blues guitar players currently out there. Chavez is simply one of the best blues guitar players currently out there – her gender is irrelevant).

The final song on the album, however, is fittingly from the man who inspired Thomas Ruf to establish his label in the first place. “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” was recorded by Luther Allison in1994 as part of Ruf’s Paint It Blue Rolling Stones tribute album. Opening with a gospel-infused Hammond organ, Allison’s interpretation is heart-breakingly powerful. As the song progresses, a funky backing draws out the optimism inherent in the music. Sadly, it would be the last song Allison would record and he succumbed to lung cancer four weeks after laying down this track. As a reminder of his genius, however, it could hardly be bettered.

Beautifully packaged in a double-gatefold sleeve, the album also includes track-by-track sleeve notes written by Thomas Ruf himself, relating the background to and the stories behind the songs and giving personal memories of the artists.

It is all too easy to overlook the contributions that folk like Thomas Ruf make to the music we all love. From John Hammond and the Chess brothers to the likes of Bob Koester, Clifford Antone and Ruf himself, these people are responsible for finding and recording some of the greatest music in the world and we should all be grateful for their work. 20 Years Anniversary is a stellar collection of modern guitar-driven electric blues and blues-rock, an introduction to some artists you may not have heard and a welcome reminder of the talents of others, and a worthy celebration of Ruf Records’ history. Here’s to the next 20 years.

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