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Music Review: Chicago: The Blues Today!

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I often wonder why I didn't start my journey to the heart of the blues sooner than I did.  The more I listen to the idiom's greatest champions and practitioners, the more I despair at how many days of my life were wasted without these sounds, songs, and artists in my vocabulary. 

Most of the time, these lamentations are silly expressions of my incurable case of fanboy-itis but there are times it seems a valid question for consideration and I've even come up with a few possible explanations.  One that makes the most sense to me is that I just didn't know where the hell to begin.  You could say "begin at the beginning" but there is no defined beginning of the blues, even if one believes the legend and myth of W.C. Handy at the train station. 

I've spent countless hours learning the names and places and dates and years of artists legendary and obscure.  If there's an ideal entry point, I've not yet found it.  There are still thousands of great works with which I'm not yet familiar  and I suspect as I spend whatever time I have left whittling that list down I'll never find a definitive starting point, but if I were to start a Blues 101 class my first lesson might be Chicago The Blues Today! 

It may not hit on everything but comes damn close!  You don't get every important name or famous song, but you get to hear and experience the DNA of Chicago blues and some of the idiom's greatest names are present on this 3-CD set.  You get to hear some of the great harp stylists of the genre.  You get to hear textbook examples of electric slide lead guitar playing as well as some of the finest examples of the West Side sound.  In addition, you get to hear some of the lesser known pieces of the Chicago legacy in the form of piano blues from perhaps the finest player of them all as well as an introduction to the under-appreciated mandolin tradition.

Little Walter and Sonny Boy Williamson are arguably the gold standard for Chicago blues harmonica and neither are represented on this set but there is little if any drop off from those two legends to Junior Wells, James "Superharp" Cotton, and Big Walter Horton.  Each has his own particular style and all three spent time working as sidemen with some of the greats as well as leading bands of their own. 

J.B. Hutto is not nearly as widely known as he should be, and his inclusion in this set offers some of his finest cuts.  In addition to introducing blues listeners to an artist they might not discover until years later, you get a taste of one of the most important schools of blues lead playing.  Hutto is a disciple of Elmore James, who is one of the building blocks of electric slide guitar.  James is an essential lesson for blues students and his work must be sought out, but Hutto represents the sound well.

My favorite blues discovery has been the great Otis Rush, who is one of the pillars of what is called the West Side sound of Chicago blues.  You won't learn all you need to know of Rush or the West Side sound from these five selections but they are great pieces of his recorded legacy. 

Otis Spann will always be most famous for the time he spent with Muddy Waters, but he may be the most famous blues pianist of them all.  In addition to working with Waters, he cut numerous albums as a band leader and served as something of an unofficial talent scout for different labels.  It was Spann who brought Johnny Young to the attention of the Blue Horizon label.  Spann sat in with Young on those sessions and the results were some of the finest blues mandolin work ever recorded.  Mandolin is rarely associated with the blues and hearing it used in this setting is invigorating.  Young's sides here aren't quite as engaging as those he cut with Spann for Blue Horizon, but they're excellent.

I'm sure there are blues scholars who could explain in painstaking detail why Chicago The Blues Today! is the wrong place to start.  Maybe there is somewhere better.  Maybe there's no ideal introductory point.  Regardless of where you slot it, any blues curriculum that doesn't include the music on this set is incomplete.

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About Josh Hathaway

  • http://marksaleski.com Mark Saleski

    nice overview josh. woah, an anthology that has some JB Hutto in it? sort of shocking!

  • Josh Hathaway

    It is. This compilation introduced me to J.B. Hutto. I cannot possibly emphasize enough how vital and essential this package is.