It may well be burdened with the most unwieldy title in history, but Chicago Blues: A Living History – The (R)evolution Continues is a pretty impressive — and important — document, with a particular emphasis on ‘living.’
Following up on 2009’s A Living History, producer Larry Skoller has once again assembled a first-rate blues band and invited some high-profile guests to trace the music’s growth, and yes, its evolution, from the early forties to the (almost) turn of the century. And while the initial offering did a fine job of charting the genre’s progress through the years, Skoller is even more the educator this time out.
Lavishly packaged with lots of both vintage and contemporary photos and quotes, the two-disc set puts every tune, and the originating artist, in succinct historical perspective. Beginning with Lonnie Johnson’s “He’s A Jelly Roll Baker,” from 1942, the playlist touches on virtually every significant stylistic innovation, ‘til things wrap up with “Make These Blues Survive,” a track first recorded in 1998 by Ronnie Baker Brooks, a true ‘second-generation’ bluesman.
True, there’s no way a two-disc collection could possibly encapsulate the blues in its entirety; there are far too many shades within the blue spectrum for that. But Skoller has done a fine job of ensuring that major figures are represented, while (for the most part) avoiding the obvious and the overdone. The emphasis this time out is on how the blues gave birth to rock ‘n’ roll, tracing the music’s evolution from its earlier, piano-dominated approach to the modern, guitar-dominated music prevalent today. Tracks are presented in more-or-less chronological order, with minor deviations to ensure a coherent and vibrant listening experience. Because for all the scholarship involved, this is anything but a dry and dusty history lesson. They’re all seasoned pros, but every musician involved plays with passionate intensity and palpable joy. The core band — guitarist Billy Flynn, bassist Felton Crews, pianist Johnny Iguana, and drummer Kenny Smith, augmented by Billy Boy Arnold on harmonica and vocals — is rock-solid yet supple, with that loose-yet-never-sloppy feel that gives the music lots of room to breathe.
Disc one opens with tracks originally by Johnson, Tampa Red, and Sonny Boy Williamson (the first – there were two harmonica players to use the name), while Muddy Waters — arguably the single most influential bluesman of all time — gets a pair. James Cotton guests on his signature song, “Rocket 88,” often cited as the first true rock ‘n’ roll record, and Billy Branch delivers a bit of a rap in the middle of a medley of “Mellow Down Easy / Hey Bo Diddley” from Little Walter and Mr. Diddley himself to close the first disc with a bit of a modern twist.
He’s now an elder statesman, but Buddy Guy proves he’s lost none of his fire on an incendiary remake of “First Time I Met The Blues” to open disc two. From there it’s an eclectic grab bag, with tracks from seminal figures including Magic Sam, the immortal Howlin’ Wolf (Muddy’s only real rival), Sunnyland Slim, and Elmore James. Lurrie Bell — a second-generation player himself — contributes his own “Got To Leave Chi-Town,“ a tribute to his late father, while Brooks, in addition to his own tune, delivers a cover of father Lonnie Brooks’ “Don’t Take Advantage Of Me” from ’83. Fenton Robinson (“Somebody Loan Me A Dime,” from 1967) and Otis Rush (1997’s “Ain’t Enough Comin’ In”) are also here, and things wrap up with a ‘bonus’ all-star jam on Muddy’s “The Blues Had A Baby (And They Named It Rock ‘n’ Roll”) that sums the project up nicely.
There’s simply not a less-than-stellar performance in the bunch. In addition to those already mentioned, the remainder of the cast is truly the cream of the crop; guitarists Magic Slim and John Primer, Mathew Skoller (Larry’s brother) on harmonica, and vocalists Zora Young and Carlos Johnson (the latter also delivers some fiery guitar) are all stalwarts of the Chicago scene. Lurrie Bell, as always, is utterly brilliant, as is the all-too-often woefully overlooked Primer, and Cotton (who gets a bit of help from Branch) remains an indomitable force of nature.
One can quibble about the cutoff date of 1998 — there’s been a lot of music created in the intervening years — but that would, indeed, be quibbling. This collection accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do: it’s educational and scholarly and genuinely revealing of the evolution of Chicago blues in the latter half of the twentieth century. It’s also a killer collection of great tunes delivered by a top-notch band and A-list guests who represent blues royalty, full of life and packing a powerful emotional punch. The blues, it seems, are in very good hands indeed.
This one’s absolutely essential!