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.