There were few performers in any genre as riveting as the late Luther Allison. having been a fan since his debut Delmark recordings, I remember going to catch him at Oberlin College in 1970 and almost tore off the roof of the Chapel he was playing at. From playing an one-string guitar in Mississippi to taking over Freddie King’s gig and band in Chicago he brought a hold no prisoners approach to his performances, throwing everything into his singing and his guitar playing. One can point to B.B. King as a primary inspiration, but Elmore James and Freddie King seem even most important influences in Allison’s music. He struck me in his earlier days as a cross of the two Kings instrumentally with James’ impassioned vocals. I was privileged to see Luther a number of times in the last decade of his life including when he performed for a DC Blues Society show for the “Soul Fixing Man” tour. I am not sure if the last time I saw him was at Wolf Trap when they still put on a Jazz and Blues Festival, and I remember this gentleman who had seen James Brown, Otis Redding, Miles Davis and others stating that Luther was as great a live performer as anyone he ever witnessed.
“Songs From the Road” (Ruf Records) presents on disc and DVD one of Luther’s last performances at the Montreal International Jazz Festival on July 4, 1997. Shortly after this performance, he would be diagnosed with the disease that in August 2007 would take this wonderful person away from the world. This was a representative performance with his great band of James Sjoberg, rhythm guitar; Ken Faltinson, bass guitar; Mike Vlahakis, keyboards; and Rob Stupka, drums. It was a band that played hundreds of gigs together, toured globally for several years and played with a tightness that reflected this experience.
Luther, of course, held nothing back this night from the opening moments of “Cancel My Check,” to his brief encore on “Serious.” There are several extended performances that never falter unlike most of his contemporaries (Otis Rush being one of the few exceptions) who could neither sustain such inspired playing and vocals that Luther could, and Sjoberg’s solos add another exciting voice while maintaining the fervor of the performances. Much of this are his originals including the rocking B.B. King styled shuffle “Will It Ever Change,” where he tells his woman to listen to him (with Sjoberg taking the opening B.B. King styled solo while Allison takes the longer break later), while he takes a Magic Sam recording,“What Have I Done Wrong,” and places his own stamp on it.
“(Watching You) Cherry Red Wine,” was always one of the climatic parts of any Allison performance as he sings about this woman destroying herself drinking herself into oblivion, while “There Comes a Time,” is a soulful number as Luther confesses to be a good man who went astray and begging to be taken back by his woman, with another killer solo here. His vocal here is a standout here. Luther takes out the slide for “It Hurts Me Too” (as well as Bernard Allison’s “Low Down and Dirty”), doing Elmore James memory proud with his fervent rendition of the classic.
The DVD contains 7 of the songs from the CD (“Will It Ever Change” is not listed but present) and adds “Move From the Hood.” The 59 minutes of the performances on the DVD video are electrifying with great camera work catching all sweat and passion that he put in his performances. The Montreal Jazz Festival has recorded and filmed records many if not all of the performances in the past couple decades and generally do excellent work. The DVD also includes a 23 minute interview and a ten minute excerpt “Tribute to Luther Allison” from a documentary. This writer understands that a 50 minute CBC broadcast was compiled from this performance This CD/DVD makes all of the music from that day available.
What a joy to listen and watch previously unissued performances by Luther Allison after all these years. It doesn’t get much better than this release which is quite reasonably priced and should be available from itunes or amazon and better retailers.
The above review speaks to Luther Allison’s phenomenal music, but anyway who had a chance to meet Luther knows what a down-to-earth and warm person he was. The review copy CD was provided by the publicity form for the record label (this for FTC regulations).