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Music Review: Luther Allison – Songs From The Road

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Songs From The Road is Ruf Records’ latest stellar offering from a man who was the bedrock of their stable of musicians. It’s a CD-DVD combination pack, recorded on July 4th, 1997, at the Montreal Jazz Festival, and my only gripe is that the DVD was cut to fit a Canadian Broadcasting Company one-hour slot. But that’s a very minor complaint, considering what didn’t end up on the cutting-room floor. Even so, the CD totals out at a very respectable 71:52, while the DVD is 56 minutes, and it turned out to be Luther’s last live recorded performance.

Luther Allison was one of those magical people who attracted others to him by sheer magnetism. His forthrightness, his honesty, his friendliness all contributed, making him one of the most forceful, dynamic musicians ever to grace a stage. His talent and magic – there’s no other word for it – kept him there. And what people loved most about Luther was his no-attachments, unquestioned love for the music and for his audience.

When you saw Luther onstage, his clothes drenched in sweat, his body dripping, and with that implacable smile firmly in place, you knew he was having the time of his life, just as you in the audience. And when you suddenly became aware he’d been onstage for four hours, you fully realized the depth and breadth of Luther’s love and commitment to music and audience both. Luther’s magic was that the audience became one with him when he played. Luther strummed, the audience strummed; Luther picked, the audience picked; Luther smiled, the audience smiled. The audience and he were one, and that was his special magic.

This CD-DVD combo was recorded less than six weeks before Luther’s death, but the energy, the sheer majesty of the performance, belies his terrible illness. Watching this DVD and listening to this CD is nearly as good as watching a live performance, with his special magic bridging the gap between musician and audience, CD and DVD, seamlessly.

For those who aren’t familiar with Luther’s performances, watching and hearing him perform “Living In The House Of The Blues” is watching and hearing a maestro. These slow, grinding, crying blues were Luther’s forté. On a rocking number, he’d have you rocking. But on a crying blues, you were helpless, as when the group performs "Cherry Red Wine," Luther’s 1996 award-winning Song of the Year. His defining passion and his professional showman show through clearly, clearly enough to see why he’s still one of the best bluesmen ever, 13 years after his death

There’s a joke that bluesmen tell that asks, “What do you call the guy who carries the equipment?” The answer? “The drummer.” Watching Rob Stupka on drums, however, quickly disabuses you of that notion. Mike Vlahakis is the perfect keyboardist, in the fore or in the background, wherever is most appropriate. Ken Faltinson on bass does so much more than carry the beat and add a little bottom. And anybody who knows anything about blues knows that James Solberg, backing Luther on guitar, is a flower waiting to bloom in this performance, which he did following Luther’s death. But the star of the show is, in the end, the star of this show.

In addition to the performance, the DVD also has an interview which was conducted in Montreal, and a Tribute, which is an excerpt from a film coming out later this year from One Step Further: Blues in Europe, produced by Brian K Read. The film includes portions of a 1992 concert in Oss, The Netherlands, and also includes Luther’s son Bernard playing at this performance.

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About Lou Novacheck