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Music Review: Billy Boy Arnold, John Primer, Billy Branch, & Lurrie Bell – Chicago Blues A Living History

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Those who have more than a casual acquaintance with the blues know the music comes in many flavours and variants. Like regional cuisine, the basic ingredients might stay the same, but the spicing changes dependent on which area of the world you taste it in.

From Mail to the Mississippi Delta and India to Indiana and Illinois, the blues assumes the local flavouring that give an area its distinctive bite, yet never loses it's basic nature. While there's no denying the music's southern American roots, you're just as liable these days to find it being played on a mohan vishnu as an electric guitar.

However, there is probably no region outside of the Mississippi where the music has taken deeper roots then the city of Chicago. As the closest major city to the south above the colour line it became the obvious destination of choice for African-Americans seeking a better life as far back as the 19th century. However, it was during the depression of the 1930s, when people desperate for work of any kind left the land and flooded cities across the United States, and the post WW2 industrial boom, that saw the largest waves of migration. That roughly twenty-five year span also saw the development of the sound we know as Chicago blues. A sound that continues to be played today in bars throughout the city by the children, nephews, and grand-children of the men and women who first played it.

In honour of both the originators and their descendants Raisin Music is releasing Chicago Blues A Living History on April 19, 2009. The two CD set offers samples of the sound of Chicago from 1940 to the present, with disc one covering the period 1940 -55 and disc two 1955 onwards. The four featured players on the anthology, Lurrie Bell, Billy Boy Arnold, John Primer, and Billy Branch all have roots deep in the Chicago Blues scene. With Bell and Branch representing today's musicians, Primer considered one of the originators of the electric blues sound of the 1950s, and Arnold's career beginning in 1963, between the four of them they have seen and heard just about all the variations that modern Chicago blues has had to offer.

Of course it's not just these four playing on the disc, as they're accompanied by some of the finest players on the Chicago scene today. Men whose names aren't as familiar to a wide audience as the four leads, but whose faces I've seen pop up on DVDs of gigs recorded in Chicago blues bars over the last four or five years. It doesn't seem to matter whether they're playing "My Little Machine" written in 1940 by John Lee "Sonny Boy" Williamson or Buddy Guy's "Damn Right I've Got The Blues" from 1991, they sound like they were born playing the music. It's not just the fact that they're skilled musicians, which they are, but they also have the feel and the touch for the music that comes from having lived and breathed it for so long that playing it has become second nature to them.

As for the music that's been selected to be performed by these musicians, while it was obviously impossible for the collection's producers to fit examples of everybody and everything that was recorded from 1940 to present, what they've done is try and collect together samples of the most distinctive players. Aside from John Lee "Sonny Boy", that also includes the other Sonny Boy Williamson, Rice Lee (a radio show sponsor figured nobody would know the difference between one harmonica player and another over the air waves and stole the moniker to apply to their performer), Junior Walker, Jimmy Reed, Big Bill Broonzy, Elmore James, Howlin Wolf, Muddy Watters, B.B. King (technically King was never part of the Chicago blues scene but his influence on electric blues music was so great that the folk putting together the compilation figured they had to include him), Buddy Guy, Otis Rush, Tampa Red, and other equally famous names.

What makes this collection special is the fact that not only is this an amazing collection of music performed by an incredible group of musicians, it also brings the music alive in a way that listening to old recordings of these performers doing their songs doesn't. Sure it's always nice to go back and listen to let's say an original recording of Elmore James doing his song "I Believe", but there's also the sense that you're listening to something from the past. Whether it's because of the poor quality of the recording or something else, I know when I listen to even a re-mastered recording of older material I've always felt slightly disconnected from the music. As if it were something from the past that weren't particularly relevant anymore. I always really appreciated and enjoyed it, but it was also lacking something.

After hearing this recording of many of those same songs it felt like I was hearing him for the first time. Instead of sounding like museum pieces, or something from a bygone era, they felt like songs written just the other day were meant to be performed today. They still sounded the way Chicago blues music has always sounded, and like you hope it always will sound, but there was also a vitality to the songs I had never experienced or heard before. It's not even as if the musicians on this disc have never played together before, which can sometimes result in songs sounding fresher, because that's not the case as a number of them have even been in the same bands at one time or another (Lurrie Bell and Billy Branch were part of a band called Sons Of The Blues that was made up of the children of first generation blues musicians from Chicago).

No, the real reason is that for the musicians on this recording, the blues, and specifically Chicago style blues, are a living breathing organism and they're continually working out new ways to keep it alive and vital. So it doesn't matter to them whether a song was written in 1940 or they wrote it themselves yesterday, they're looking to make it as interesting as possible for themselves to play and aren't thinking about what it's supposed to sound like. The result is classic blues songs made alive and fresh as it's possible for any music to be.

Anybody who thinks that the blues are a music of the past needs to think again and give this collection a listen. It doesn't matter when any of the material on Chicago Blues A Living History was written, because the music is certainly alive and kicking. If more collections were made along the lines of this one, I don't think you'd ever hear anyone ever wondering about the health of the blues again. Chicago has always been home to some of the most exciting blues music around, and this disc only confirms how exciting and important that music is. Even better is the fact that it reaffirms the blues don't belong in a museum, and are every bit as vital as they ever were.

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site He has been writing for since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.