During the 1970s and 1980s, Texas enjoyed a blues renaissance. Before then, of course, the innovations of Blind Lemon Jefferson, the showmanship of T-Bone Walker, the country blues of Lightnin’ Hopkins, and the guitar wizardry of Freddie King, among others, had helped shape a raw, rural post-World War II southern sound. It was far different from the smooth Memphis grooves of the later B.B. King and Bobby Blue Bland but was a clear kissing cousin of the urban urgency of the Chess factory in Chicago. During the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, Janis Joplin, the Winter brothers, and ZZ Top kept the Texas blues edge alive and put it into the popular rock mainstream.
Then, with Austin as capital but every other region contributing their fair share, the Lone Star State was full of bands selling mountains of vinyl and filling clubs and stadiums of blues enthusiasts. There were the Vaughan brothers, Anson and the Rockets, Jim Colgrave and the Jukejumpers, the Cobras, Kenny Wayne, Marsha Ball, the Fabulous Thunderbirds.
Collectively, these acts were an avalanche of performers who were an antidote to the commercial productions of disco while keeping very close to the electric roots of rock. Things were never quite the same after August 27, 1990 when Stevie Ray Vaughan left us, but that’s not to say quality blues music wasn’t and isn’t being performed and recorded in Texas.
One veteran of this era is guitarist, singer, and songwriter “Omar” Kent Dykes, who’s been leading Omar and the Howlers since the ‘80s. Considering Omar’s Wolfman Jack vocals, one can be forgiven for thinking the group could be called the “Growlers.” But Mississippi émigré Omar Dykes is actually one of the best in the business for channeling both the forms of the old masters as well as the styles of his Lone Star contemporaries.
Now, it’s important to point out that the blues, to be fair, can often be formulaic. Artists are usually defined by the freshness and virtuosity of their performances and not innovative musical originality. Often, the lyrics are personal stories laid over standard riffs that have long been part of the blues tradition. So when comparisons between one performer and another are hard to miss, that’s rarely a criticism. Instead, lovers of roadhouse blues want to hear what is familiar territory delivered with excitement, energy, and power. If there are surprising and new ingredients, all the better.
Omar Dykes and company deliver all that in a major dose of the electric blues in Essential Collection , a two-disc set of 30 live and studio tracks culled from 25 years of recordings. Disc One is called “Best Of” and is just that, 15 numbers that have become fan favorites over the years. Disc Two is “Omar’s Picks,” 15 more songs Dykes claims are his personal favorites for various reasons. As a result, Essential Collection is as good as it gets—song after song—and is an outstanding sampler of what the Texas blues scene as a whole is all about.
The “Best Of” disc centers on a series of live performances featuring a changing line-up of The Howlers. It demonstrates how rich a well the blues family can draw from. The opening tribute to Bo Diddley, “Magic Man,” for example, is a five-minute chunka-chunka guitar jam. “Border Girl” and “Tears Like Rain” evoke memories of Stevie Ray Vaughan-inspired rhythm guitar chordings and rock ‘n roll melody lines.
Likewise, one can hear Kim Wilson singing the T-Birds styled jukejumper, “Hard Times In The Land Of Plenty.” It’s hard to miss the influence of John Fogerty in both the vocals and “Old Man Down the Road” melody in “Mississippi Hoo Doo Man.” Speaking of the Fabulous T-Birds, guitarist Jimmy Vaughan co-wrote both “You Made Me Laugh” and “Jimmy Reed Highway,” two very old-fashioned homages to the legendary harp player. They ostensibly showcase Gary Primrich, as he’s the only harp player listed on the credits, a musician who’s also issued some excellent discs down Texas way.
Digging further into the roots of blues, “East Side Blues” is a standard issue slow, low-down moan. Omar has fun with “Big Chief Pontiac” as a harmonica-driven shuffle honoring Pontiac cars, and “Monkey Land” has him running through the jungle crying out ape calls. On the other hand, Omar can take old formulas and give them unique twists. “Snake Oil Doctor” takes “Hoochie Coochie Man,” “Mannish Boy,” and every song devoted to psychic soothsayers and kicks the energy up a few notches. The classic John Lee Hooker boogie is the basis for ”Boogie Man,” with overt nods to ZZ Top, but the guitar sound is all Omar. “Bad Seed” is an expressive tune with unexpected touches, especially guitar bits emulating the sitar.
The second disc, “Omar’s Picks,” is distinguished by more studio cuts with the band augmented by organ and occasional brass players. More tips of the hat to Stevie Ray—especially the second edition of Double Trouble which had been expanded by organ swells and syncopated drum shots—are “I Want You” and “Burn It To The Ground.”
“Got My Heart Set On You” is another re-working of the Bo Diddley rhythm, and T Rex-meets-Creedence Clearwater in “Snake Rhythm Rock.” If you hear Jerry Leiber’s “Alligator Wine,” “Do It For Daddy,” and the red-hot rockers “Girl’s Got Rhythm” and “World Of Trouble” and don’t think John Fogerty, well, then you’ve never heard CCR. These tracks are spot-on imitations. But Omar can travel the delta with his own voice, as in the stand-out “Stone Cold Blues” with images of the devil, swamps, and hound dogs that “can’t get high if they don’t get low down.”
Veering slightly from his usual guitar, bass and drums line-up, Omar adds brass for the jazzy “Work Song” where the band lays back behind a sax solo. Sax, harp, and a honky-tonk piano pump up Clarence Brown’s old-time rock ‘n roll dancer, “That’s Your Daddy Yaddy Yo.” “Sugar Ditch” is another story song about an outlaw friend embellished with congas, keyboards, and soulful guitar lines.
Omar’s vocal delivery is far less raspy for “I’m Wild About You.” It draws from another standard riff as with “Life Without You,” an atypical slow burner. The disc closes with a humorous, acoustic interpretation of Magic Slim’s “Built For Comfort” as if to show, hell yes, I can pump it up even without an amp.
If you dislike the blues, Essential Collection isn’t for you. If you love the stuff, this is an offering not to be missed. For everyone else, Essential Collection is an ideal introduction to one band and the scene of which it is a vital participant. If anyone comes to your party and he or she doesn’t enjoy this in the background, kick that person out. You wouldn’t want people like that for friends anyway.