One of the biggest mysteries about the American music industry is why it took British musicians to popularize American music in North America. Led Zepplin, The Rolling Stones, The Yardbirds, and The Animals all had success on the American pop charts not only by singing the blues, but by playing old blues music. The even larger irony is the large number of American blues musicians, predominantly African American, who have had to go to Europe in order for their music to be fully appreciated. In some cases that has meant successful tours, while for others it has meant signing with European record companies.
At one point in time the issue of race was a factor as mainstream American radio stations refused to play the blues as performed by African American musicians. Elvis's version of "Hound Dog" might have been popular, but there wasn't much chance of ever hearing Big Momma Thornton singing it on the radio. There is definitely something wrong with a system that would rather broadcast Pat Boone covering Little Richard than playing the genuine article. Sad as that situation was in the late 1950s and early 1960s, it must have been even more disheartening for musicians to hear young guys from England coming over and having hits with songs they had written — and never got credit for writing, let alone ever receiving a cent in royalties.
Thankfully for American blues musicians, black and white, European audiences had a taste for the real thing. Not only did many of them, and many still do today, have successful careers over there, but quite a number of the European blues labels began distributing recordings in North America, and putting energy into developing audiences for the blues back in the land where it originated. One of the most successful of those has been the German label Ruf Records, formed by Thomas Ruf in 1994. He had left school in the 1980s when he became Luther Allison's promoter, and the label grew out of that relationship, with Allison's 1994 recording Bad Love (released in the US by Alligator as Soul Fixin' Man) being their first title.
Sadly, Allison died only three years later from lung cancer just as he was re-establishing himself in North America. In fact he was diagnosed while on tour and gave the last performance of his career on July 10, 1997 in Madison Wisconsin, the day he had was given the bad news, and died that August. According to anyone who saw him perform, it was his live shows that made Allison special, and now thanks to Ruf Records and Canadian television, we have one more opportunity to see and hear him performing in front of an audience. On that last tour of North America, his performance on July 4th at the Montreal Jazz Festival was recorded by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). While the original concert was 90 minutes long, the video was edited down to 50 to fit into an hour time slot. However the complete audio track survives, allowing fans at least the opportunity to hear the entire performance on the new two-disc CD/DVD set, Luther Alison: Songs From The Road.
The first thing you notice about the DVD segment of Songs From The Road is its high quality. It's been re-mastered for surround sound and the picture quality is excellent. The CBC had been recording live performances of music for decades by then, and that shows in the quality of the presentation. From the number of cameras used to the seamless editing job, they did everything possible to bring the performance to life for the audience at home. From tight shots of fingers on fret boards during leads, close-ups of Allison's face as he's wringing every last drop of emotion from a lyric, to shooting through the band allowing us to see the audience on their feet and dancing, the DVD brings you as complete a concert experience as is possible on camera.
Of course, there's Luther himself. Now, while I've heard any number of his recordings dating back to his earlier years on through his career, I never had the opportunity to see him perform. Unlike some performers who run all over the stage or contort themselves while playing their leads yet still don't feel like they are giving off the energy to rival a firefly, Luther Allison standing still centre stage feels like he could power a small city. There was one moment when he let loose a lyric, halfway between a primal growl and singing, sounding like the words were being torn out of his soul, that sent shivers running up and down my spine. At that instant he became a small sun around which everything else revolved, dependent on him for the energy required for life to exist.
I knew a theatre director once who referred to rock and roll stars as the shamans of the modern world as they had the power to control tens of thousands of people during their concerts. To be honest with you I had never really bought into that line because to my mind the power we awarded those people never felt like it was as a result of their actions, but more because of their status as celebrities. However, when Allison sang that note, even though I was separated from that moment by 12 years and technology, there could be no denying the pull he exerted on me by whatever it was he was generating. You could almost hear the collective drawing in and holding of breath by the on-screen audience as they too were captured, and then the explosion of its release in the form of cheers and applause.
Electric blues music has been around for decades, and quite frankly a lot of it has become cliched and boring. Somehow the music whose power and mystery so frightened radio programmers 30 years ago that they refused to play it has been turned into something bland. The passion has been sucked out of it by performers who put themselves centre stage ahead of the music. Instead of being conduits for its power, they suck it dry to make themselves look impressive. Watching Luther Allison on Songs From The Road, giving the next to last performance of his life, is to understand what the blues are and to be reminded what makes them so special.
He didn't know it was one of the last times he would ever perform, but he played and sang like it was, because that's what he always did. For those of you, like me, who never had a chance to see Allison perform, the CD/DVD two-disc set Songs From The Road is a treasure you don't want to miss out on. One warning: after watching and listening to these two discs, you might start experiencing a great deal of dissatisfaction with what passes for blues these days.