A delightful surprise is a new double CD, “Chicago Blues: A Living History,” (Raisin Music). It is an attempt to portray a sketch of the evolution of Chicago Blues over the past seven decades as performed by two generations of the idiom’s greatest tradionalists. Featured on this recording are Billy Boy Arnold, John Primer, Lurrie Bell and Billy Branch, backed by a stellar band of guitarist Billy Flynn; keyboard whiz, Johnny Iguana, bassist Felton Crews and drummer Kenny Smith with Matthew Skoller adding his harp on a few tracks. Also present are special guests Carlos Johnson and Mike Avery who add addition spice to this rich blues stew.
Included are renditions of classic blues recordings by the likes of both Sonny Boy Williamson, Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Howlin’ Wolf, Elmore James, Memphis Slim, Otis Rush, Buddy Guy, Earl Hooker and Magic Sam. The music here is traditionally oriented and remains true to the originals without being slavish copies. Let me point out that the ‘legendary’ John Mayall Blues Breakers album with Clapton is comprised of mostly covers, and the music here is simply better. I don’t care whether or not Clapton is a guitar god, the truth is that The Living History Band is a much stronger band than Mayall’s band and the musicians here invigorate the tradition from which their careers are rooted.
Billy Boy Arnold opens with songs from John Lee ‘Sonny Boy’ Williamson, Tampa Red and Big Bill Broonzy with Billy Flynn conjuring up Tampa Red’s distinctive slide sound before pianist Iguana does a solo rendition of Big Maceo’s “Chicago Breakdown.” Things get a bit more modern as John Primer does Muddy’s “Feel Like Going home,” followed by Lurrie Bell’s exuberant vocal on Elmore James’ “I Believe,” with Flynn adding slide and Billy taking his usual sharp solo. Primer puts an emphatic stamp Wolf’s “Moanin’ at Midnight,” with Skoller adding harp. While B.B. King’s music is not Chicago Blues, his influence is all pervasive and the rendition of “Three O’Clock Blues,” introduces us to vocalist Mike Avery, a cousin of Magic Sam, a riveting singer that Lurrie Bell’s guitar complement so well. Billy Boy handles “Memphis Slim USA,” a bit subdued compared with Slim’s recording that had Matt Murphy’s slashing guitar on it, but the energy picks up when Billy Branch lights into Little Walter’s “Hate to See You Go.”
The second disc opens with primer in a Muddy Waters bag again on “Sugar Sweet,” with Branch adding fine harp and then Jimmy Reed’s “Can’t Stand to See You Go,” as the band aces the lazy boogie Jimmy Reed groove and Skoller adds some Reed-sounding harp. Its followed by Billy Boy reworking his own “I Wish You Would,” before Primer takes the lead on Rice Miller’s “Your Imagination,” with Skoller displaying his virtuosity as he emulates the second Sonny Boy’s style. Lurrie Bell handles the Otis Rush classic “My Love Will Never Die,” followed by Billy Branch’s interpretation of Junior Wells’ “Hoodoo Man Blues,” which is derived from the Delmark recording, not Wells’ original. Billy Flynn takes the spotlight on Earl Hooker’s “Hooking It,” displaying not only his chops but his musical good taste followed by Avery handling his cousin’s “Out of Bad Luck.” Branch returns for a strong treatment of James Cotton’s “One More Mile,” before the one ringer track as Carlos Johnson handles the vocal and guitar on John Lee Hooker’s “The Healer.” No question Hooker had in impact on Chicago, but its odd that they represent Hooker with this as opposed to the great recordings like “Boom Boom,” on which Chicago musicians had played. Johnson does an able Carlos Santana impression. Johnson is lead guitarist behind Bell on Buddy Guy’s “Damn Right I Got the Blues,” which is included to represent the continuing development of Chicago blues, although I would have preferred a reworking of one of Guy’s earlier recordings.
As I stated this is a sketch of the Chicago Blues as it evolved. One can think of a variety of artists who were skipped like Floyd Jones, J.B. Hutto, Jimmy Rogers, Big Walter, Carey Bell, Sunnyland Slim, John Brim, Otis Spann and many others. But this album does it job of lovingly bring to life some terrific songs. And as stated, Mike Avery is a helluva singer who somebody should do a full recording by. This is accompanied by a booklet with plenty of information on the original performers and the artists on the disc. For more information, visit www.raisinmusic.com or www.chicagobluesalivinghistory.com.