Wednesday, March 6, 2019

The Masters: The Blues - Best Studio Albums

RtBE loves listening to new music and prides itself on keeping tabs on up and coming artists but in 2019 we are also going to have a monthly spotlight on legendary artists who we really love. We are calling this series The Masters. It will focus on the best albums, live records, transcendent shows and other odd ways we appreciate the artists and their contribution to music, culture and our formation.
For March The Masters focuses on The Blues.

The first of (at least) two months in The Masters series where the focus will not just be on one particular artist; let's face it, just one couldn't cover this topic. The blues are the foundation of rock and roll and if we chose, Muddy, Hooker, Hopkins, Wolf or King (any of them) for the monthly showcase RtBE wouldn't be able to accurately capture the full scope and breath of the, at first, so simple sounding genre known as the blues. 
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By not pinning this month to a particular artist we can hopefully highlight a few of our favs and maybe start conversations about others. Also because we are focusing on the genre, their will be pieces we miss and artists we leave out, James Brown, Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix are the blues through and through to these ears, but for our purposes this month we are leaving those artists who also touch other genres out of this conversation (more on them in the future).

RtBE also owns vinyl from Charley Patton, The Mississippi Sheiks and Blind Willie McTell (not to mention the amazing American Epic Series) but they are forerunners of the genre and while vital they are not making our list, particularly because full length albums were not a thing when they were recording.

For today we are going to focus on our top five studio records when it comes to what we think when we hear "the blues". This is very tough this month as the majority of great blues men were more in the live moment or making singles which were then collected into "best of's" and box sets. Breaking the rules of "album" RtBE dabbles with a few of those here, as it is how we came into the genre. We will get to "live albums" later this month but most of these studio releases are pretty raw as well.

More then any other of this monthly showcases in The Masters series there will be disagreements with these choices and RtBE will surely leave out something grand, so if people have suggestions, thoughts, ideas, feel free to hit us up in the comments. Here are our choices for top five studio blues albums.  

5. Buddy Guy - Left My Blues in San Francisco (1968)

A case of not judging the book by the cover (and title) as Buddy Guy's first solo album found his record company Chess trying to jump on the psychedelic strawberry craze, but this collection is straight electric Chicago blues. Buddy Guy has always had style but for RtBE tastes his solo debut was his peak. Other albums that this record just beat out for our top five were Robert Cray's Strong Pretender, Koko Tayor's Earthshaker and Buddy's compatriot on a lot of records Junior Wells Hoodoo Man Blues.

For Left My Blues in San Francisco Guy went fairly standard with his take on "Suffer With The Blues", but 'standard' via his singing style/playing power is anything but common as the genre is set soaring on his six strings. While the guitar playing is hot, the horn lines are just as consistent throughout this record and truly helped vault this onto our list. Producer Gene Barge and crew are all top notch backing Guy as he yelps and screams through horn fills and George Stephany's drums on the polished "Keep It To Myself" or the low down dirty blues of Willie Dixon's "When My Left Eye Jumps". 

"Buddy's Groove" shows Guy's easy mixing of soul, early funk and rock n' roll which he loved, even Dixon's "Crazy Love" (with Matt Guitar Murphy helping out)  has a sixties surf feel and is the closest the album comes to the cover art, but it is the blues stingers like "Goin Home", "Mother In-Law Blues" and the awesome bumping album closer "Every Girl I See" which puts this record on our personal top five. 

Others may rank different Buddy Guy albums higher, but this one is the record of his we keep spinning on the turntable with Guy's high energy, raw singing, frantic playing and professional arrangement mixing with that sweet upbeat blues feel.

4. John Lee Hooker - The Very Best Of (1995, recorded various)

Here was my personal entry into the true blues. I mentioned this way back when we were offering Mixes for download, but the first two CD's I ever bought were Stormtroopers Of Death and John Lee Hooker on the same day at a Strawberries in Crossgates Mall. (First two tapes were Hall and Oates Greatest Hits and the Beastie Boys License to Ill about 5 years earlier on Long Island). Both Compact Disks served as gateways into genres and it says a lot about my state of mind that I still love them both, but that cheap Italian discount Gold Hooker album has been supplanted by this collection which was obtained in NYC at Tower Records (RIP). 

The crawlin' king snake himself has an attitude and energy that is dynamite; a diesel engine out on the highway which can keep going for decades, and he did. Always ancient, his cave man stomp and swagger was great and the style very rarely wavered as he got into the groove and just boogie woogied. All the important numbers are here and there might be a better one off that captures him to your ears, but I am partial to this collection, The Very Best of, and I know it is kind of cheating to include a best of from an artists who did create individual albums but for Mr. Boom Boom, who was always in the mood, RtBE will certainly make an exception.

3. Robert Johnson - King of The Delta Blues Singers (1961, recorded 1937-38)

If selling your soul to the devil doesn't get you on this list, nothing will. One of the killer captures of all time which inspired a generation of guitar players to come years later, Johnson's first collection is a winner. The myth, style and legend which sprung from these sessions is one thing, but the sound is hypnotic on it's own. Woo, "Cross Road Blues" still sounds so bad ass, as does "32-20 Blues" and the ferocious "Hell Hound On My Trail". Sure we mentioned earlier about not ranking the old timers, but Johnson needs to be acknowledged. 

"Come In My Kitchen" is a slow blues groove which uses humming and talking perfectly while the "Walking Blues" is two and a half minutes of bellowing, slide riffs, plunking of strings and perfect capturing of the worst damn feelin' anyone ever had. The slow burning of "Kindhearted Woman Blues" balances the frantic playing found on "If I Had Possession Over Judgement Day" and the tunes, playing and passionate singing keep rolling on. "Rambling On My Mind", "Stones In My Passway", "Milkcow's Calf Blues" and on and on and on. Johnson is a great story and a hell of a guitar player/singer who has influenced more artists then it is possible to count.     

King of The Delta Blues Singers is a seminal album that will be at the top of most peoples list of great blues records but personally we find the two above it on this list get more air time around the RtBE clubhouse and we just personally prefer them a bit more...

2. Mississippi John Hurt - Folk Songs and Blues (1963)

What an interesting career from Mississippi John Hurt who recorded some songs in the late 1920's and then somehow returned to the scene in the early '60's after a resurgence in blues recording. His career was in fact the inspiration for the fantastic American Epic series which should be enjoyed by all.

In a less interesting way, I came to find out about him in about 2007. At the time I discovered a new internet customizable radio site called Pandora. While listening to it (and already fairly well versed in the blues) they suggested a new (old) artist for me to check out who I had never heard of. I was blown away by Hurt. I downloaded an album titled Avalon Blues and I have transferred it from digital devices ever since.

The only issue? There doesn't seem to be an album of his titled that, because my collection is definitely not the Library of Congress recordings. The songs and playing order match up directly with Folk Songs and Blues, his first album, like the blues itself, the origins may not be known. Rounders Records put out an album titled Avalon Blues with the same running order and album art I've been using, so I am thinking that is where this download came from.

Folk Songs and Blues from what minimally I can find, is a re-recording (possibly live) of a lot of his most famous songs in '63 and while considerably older, Hurt's voice is still magical, if not better then his original 1928 recordings. Where RtBE normally leans more towards raucous and ripping blues, Hurts restrained vocals manage to be tender, soothing, sexy and soulful all at once. The man is also a wizard on acoustic guitar, having it as his only accompaniment and picking, strumming, keeping the pace Hurt weaves a gorgeous setting and while Robert Johnson gets the headlines Hurt is just as much of a six string player, if not better.

Then come the songs...woo-wee they are something.  His opening ode to his hometown "Avalon Blues" sets the mood as he interrupts both Casey Jones and John Henry's story's his own way. "Salty Dog" and "Richland Women Blues" are both staggering as is "My Creole Belle" and closer "Joe Turner Blues". His harmonica playing was also something, showcased here on "Liza Jane - God's Unchanging Hand" as Hurt gets saucy and spiritual with that one, but nothing tops his fantastic rendition of "Candy Man Blues". A perfect blues offering from start to finish and one RtBE's go to's when felling, happy/sad/blue/joyful. Hurt speaks the acoustic truth.

1. Howlin' Wolf - The Chess Box Set (1991, recorded various)

I still remember the first time I heard Howlin' Wolf sing and because I grew up in the 80's I was already familiar with The Rolling Stones, Beatles, etc and yet I was instantly blown away by the original blues man. I thought, "How the hell did those English kids have the balls to sing this guys songs?" One of the reasons why the English put their unique spin on rock and roll is that voices like the Wolf own the blues and probably scared American white boys away from it.

He is a force of nature on the microphone with a gravely growl that can raise the dead. Granted, this is cheating, including a box set in this list, but this one has it all. Early Wolf from Nashville on disk one (standouts are "Bluebird", "How Many More Years", "I'm The Wolf" and "Who Will Be Next") and later day recordings on disk three ("Commit A Crime", "Dust My Broom" and "Mary Ann"). However, if this box set just had the second disk alone it would be ranked this high as it is a stunning collection of Wolf at his peak crosshatched with interview snippets adding to amazing tunes like "I Asked for Water (She Gave Me Gasoline)".

"Smokestack Lighting", "Back Door Man", "Sitting On Top Of The World", ""Moanin' For My Baby", "Wang Dang Doodle", "Spoonful", "Little Red Rooster" the amazing collection of tunes (written by Wolf or the best blues songwriter ever Willie Dixon), plus the amazing performances make this a stunning round up of the Wolf at his peak.The album has uptempo blues ("Killing Floor") slow burners ("My Country Sugar Mama") and each and every kind in-between. The truth is you can't find a bad song on this collection as Wolf has the best players supporting him.

Singing like a no one else ever, playing the guitar with power (electric or acoustic) and blowing a mean harp, as an added bonus Wolf treated his musicians right (paid them) and seemed to be a decent family man as well. He accomplished all of this while sounding like a complete bad ass; adding up to our favorite blues collection and one we rank the highest. 

So how did we do? Agree? Disagree? Feel free to comment and stay tuned for more Blues showcases such as Dylan Covers, Full Shows and more in this months Masters series.

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