July 9: Blues – four Jo(h)ns (Lee Hooker, Mayall, Spencer and Dr), BB King, Muddy Waters, The Yardbirds

Woke up this morning, checked out the news, I had to listen to seven albums in the style of the blues.

I said, I woke up this morning, now baby don’t you cry, it’s blues week on 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die.

Dr John, ‘Gris Gris’

I selected this week’s albums knowing little about them, but my understanding of the Night Tripper was that he was a blues pianist, kind of like Screamin’ Jay Hawkins (who isn’t on the list at all). This album, however, has little piano and bears only the dimmest resemblance to blues – or anything else. ‘Dance Kalimba Ya Boom’ has some Arabian flavourings, ‘Dance Fambeaux’ a 60s psychedelia workout with disembodied female vocals and church bell percussion, and ‘Croker Courtbullion’ engages a call-and-response flute/harpsichord/Moog section. This was John’s debut album, released on an Atlantic subsidary, so who knows what possessed him to adopt this persona and record this album (New Orleans voodoo loas perhaps). What a great gimmick, though, and what a great record. In it, you can see the origins of Tom Waits, Nick Cave and no doubt a million other swampy weirdos of his type.

John Lee Hooker, ‘The Healer’

Hooker’s only appearance on the list doesn’t get off to a promising start: the artwork is reminiscent of the poster for ‘The Human Centipede: First Sequence’, and the first song is an awful Santana collaboration driven mostly by cheap electric piano. Once Carlos and his mob are out of the way, though, the rest of the first half is mostly energetic electric blues, collaborating with Bonnie Raitt, Los Lobos and others. The second half, where Hooker is mostly solo, is generally a bit more meandering and undistinguished. Tracks 2-6 are very good, though. This album was recorded when Hooker was 78, making him almost certainly the oldest performer on the list. It sold well enough to enable him to live in comfort for the rest of his life. Boom boom.

John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers, ‘Blues Breakers With Eric Clapton’

Aside from a solo on the White Album, this is Eric Clapton’s first (but not last) appearance on the blog. Here, it’s 1966 and in the same year as ‘Blonde on Blonde’, ‘Revolver’ and ‘Good Vibrations’, four white English guys were trying to sound like a 50s Beale Street jam band. Although none of the tracks here exceed the five-minute mark, they contain plenty of my musical Room 101s: there’s a drum solo, loads of harmonica and a whole motorway of jams. My partner suggested this album’s credited artist would be better named “Boring Dude and the White Men”. Not, as you might have guessed, one I’ll be coming back to.

Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, ‘Now I Got Worry’

A lot of Johns and Jons this week, eh? Not the only album this week to have been released after punk broke (my heart) but the only one to acknowledge it, JSBX take some of the staples of blues – bottleneck slide, Bo Diddley riffs – and incorporate punkish raucousness, dub and DJ Shadow-ish cut-up sounds, then record everything on what sounds like a four-track Tascam. It’s thrillingly unpredictable and experimental, the rough production very effective on such loose, edgy music. If I have a gripe, it’s that there’s too many tracks, making it feel long: trimming four of its sixteen tracks out would have taken the running time under 40 minutes, but the dynamic impact would have been more effective.

BB King, ‘Live at the Regal’

Initially, I thought this album by the Blues Boy was too smooth – probably after the Blues Explosion – but I warmed to the album as it went on. Perhaps it’s the overjoyed audience, or the way the band play continuously, even as King introduces the next song with an instruction (to listen to the lyrics, for example) or an anecdote. The audience seem to get tired in the second set, as their reception is muted, and the album ends oddly abruptly without a big finale or a swelling ovation from the crowd. It’s easy to be charmed by this one.

Muddy Waters, ‘At Newport 1960’

Another live album, this starts with the endless, ickily-titled ‘I Got My Brand On You’, which isn’t a promising start. Muddy and his band seem to be on cruise control for the first few tracks, but please the audience by picking up the tempo on ‘Tiger in my Tank’ and ‘I Feel So Good’. Yes, a blues song called ‘I Feel So Good’. Taken out of context nearly sixty years after its recording, this album doesn’t seem like a particularly big deal, but it played an important part in popularising blues among a white European audience. Still, as a listener, I prefer Waters’ later album ‘Hard Again‘.

The Yardbirds, ‘The Yardbirds’

The Yardbirds had something of a revolving door when it came to lead guitarists: at this point, they were post-Clapton but pre-Jimmy Page. Stepping up to the plate, Jeff Beck, all white noise and Ravi Shankar influences. I was kind of expecting all the tracks to sound like mid-B-side instrumental 12-bar frittering ‘Jeff’s Boogie’. Instead, the band constantly keep me guessing, whether it’s tangential wanderings off the track on ‘Lost Woman’ and ‘The Nazz Are Blue’,  monastic vocal breaks, or the kitchen-sink percussive approach (guiro and wobble board both show up). As much as the band feel like they’re anchored to their blues-rock template, every track on this album threw up something unusual or unexpected. I’d recommend this one, and while all the credit can’t go to Beck here, I’m looking forward to hearing his solo record ‘Truth’ later on the list.

Next week: This week, we did blues, so next week, let’s have a look at some of the other colours on the list!

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