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Music Review: Otis Rush – Troubles, Troubles (The Sonet Blues Story)

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Being an Otis Rush fan teaches and requires patience.  BB King's fans are lucky. Their hero is alive, in good enough health to continue touring, and much of his best work is still easily available in the recorded format of your choice.  Buddy Guy's fans are lucky. Their man is still touring and recording.  Guy had a bad run of luck in the '70s and '80s but his fortunes have improved dramatically since.  Rush's story is different.  His health is beginning to fail (he suffered a stroke in 2004) and his recorded legacy is a bit of a mess.

Even when he was right on, something still went wrong.  Rush recorded his classic Right Place, Wrong Time in 1971.  His label passed on the album and it sat in storage for five years until a smaller label would take a chance on it.  The decision to pass on such a great set seems akin to being one of the labels that passed on The Beatles.  It seems unfathomable, yet every British label passed on The Beatles before EMI signed them.  Even the greatest talents in the world got a bad hand every once in awhile.  Otis Rush got that bad hand a lot.

Troubles, Troubles would likely never have been recorded if things were going well for Rush.  He was on a European tour that was not selling particularly well and in order to have enough money to finish the tour agreed to make a record for Sonet. Sadly, the album title proved to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. He recorded the album and it went nowhere. 

An American label, Alligator, purchased the rights to distribute it in the US.  Just when the album was about to see light of day, someone with Alligator thought it might be a good idea to cut some of Rush's guitar work in order to overdub some keyboards.  I guess we should be thankful that jackass was not in charge of Warner Brothers in the early '80s or he might have brought in Liberace to replace the second half of Eddie Van Halen's guitar solo on "Panama."

It has taken nearly 30 years, but now Troubles, Troubles can be easily purchased and heard in its original form.  In some ways, this is the Otis Rush album of my dreams.  Right Place, Wrong Time is still his best but this is unlike any other of his albums.

Rush is considered one of the pioneers of the West Side sound.  The West Side sound, referring to Chicago's West Side, was a brand of blues that was heavy on rhythm and usually replaced a harmonica player with a saxophone player.  He took that a step further often recording with a small horn section.

A horn section was easy to come by in those days in Chicago where the blues still flourished.  It was an expensive luxury when it was time to hit the road.  Troubles, Troubles was recorded in Stockholm, Sweden while Rush was on tour.  This album features Rush and his touring band.  There is no piano, no harmonica, and no horns.  Troubles, Troubles is a studio version of what those live shows would have sounded like:  Bob Levis on second guitar, Bob Strokes on bass, Jessie Lawis on drums, and Rush up front handling lead vocal and guitar. 

The impact on the sound of an impromptu trip to the studio while on tour without time for fuss and frill is clear — literally.  There is a jazz-like quality to the sound of the album.  Strokes' bass might be traveling well worn, blues-based rhythms but he plays them with a nimbleness not often associated with Chicago blues. The jazz reference is also appropriate for the subtle, minimalist rhythm guitar of Levis, particularly his tone.  The absence of competing instruments and masterful support of this rhythm section allow the voice and lead guitar more room than ever.  These are smooth, relaxed, sophisticated blues.  The visceral side of Rush's work is absent from Troubles, Troubles.  These blues are the kind you hear at an upscale club where people sit at tables and sip drinks while politely tapping their feet and drumming their fingers on the table. 

The origins of Troubles, Troubles might not be inspired but the music certainly is.  This is not a record that would have changed Rush's fortunes even if it had been properly released at the time of its recording, but it is certainly worth listening to now.

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About Josh Hathaway

  • Mark Saleski

    this “jazz-like quality” stuff is reminding me of how i might characterize somebody like Ronnie Earl. i’m gonna have to check this out.