In the wake of Lockwood's death late last year, the Delmark label is reissuing once again their CD release of his first session as a bandleader, Steady Rollin' Man, recorded in 1970.
I have to admit, I was all set to politely pan this album. Its plainer moments are nice enough, sure, but not really incredibly distinct from any one of dozens of worthy Chicago blues albums recorded in the last half-century. But then I found myself walking down the street on a cloudless Massachusetts afternoon, with the sunlight slanting just so from the west and a beautiful melancholy mood coming down, and the song playing in my head was Robert "Junior" Lockwood's "Western Horizon."
Structurally, the song is nothing more than a stock Chicago blues by way of the Delta: start the song with the little turnaround where one voice descends chromatically from the flat-7 to the dominant, kick in the twelve bar shuffle vamp, and then cue a lyric whose first two lines are the same and begin with "I believe, I believe... I believe I'll...."
Trust me, you know this song. Whether it's sung as "Sweet Home Chicago" or "Dust My Broom" or any one of dozens of alternate lyrics, you know this song.
But what I forgot when I got ready to politely pan the album is that in this kind of blues, it's all in the details - the bent notes, the vibe of the song, the little turns of lyric and phrasing that make a blue performance just right.
And there's lots in "Western Horizon" that is definitely right. Lockwood studied jazz, and you can hear it sometimes in the way he pulls a phrase behind the beat, the way he swings a line, the way he builds some altered harmonies into his rhythm vamps. On “Western Horizon,” he sings behind the beat and then creeps right up to it, rushes some words and draws others out, and generally sounds like he was born singing the song in that same unhurried way. The effect is cool and stylish, and is a neat twist on top of the late-night saloon mood that he and the band kick up on this song and the album in general.