Lonnie Donegan

Lonnie Donegan Live, 1957

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This is an extraordinary live document, showing what can go both very right and very wrong in concert, and also capturing the excitement that attended the height of the skiffle boom of the mid-'50s in England. The first nine cuts, five of which weren't released until the 1990s, are from a January 25, 1957, show at Conway Hall in London, where everything came off almost perfectly. Donegan was in great voice on the virtuoso band numbers ("On a Monday," "Mule-Skinner Blues," "Ella Speed") and his one solo blues ("Black Girl"), and lead guitarist Denny Wright plays some extraordinary solos, loud, rousing, and some running more than a minute (extremely long by the standards of the time). The next four tracks that follow come from a Royal Albert Hall show three weeks later, when Wright was partly incapacitated by drunkeness, and nothing came off -- Donegan even takes one solo on acoustic guitar intended for Wright's electric guitar, and a Wright solo on "Cumberland Gap" (a number that he could play magnificently, as anyone who's ever seen the movie The 6.5 Special can tell you) collapses in confusion. Similarly, "Don't You Rock Me, Daddy-O" falls apart due to the lead guitarist's problems. The live cuts are rounded out by the two studio hits that followed these shows and helped change Donegan's sound from pure blues and folk into more of a popular mode, "Gamblin' Man" and the softer, sing-songy "Puttin' on the Style," both of which featured Wright's replacement, Jimmy Currie (formerly of Tony Crombie & His Rockets). The nine Conway Hall tracks (really eight -- one is just a false start on the wrong song) are some of the best live blues-based music you're likely to hear from this period, every bit as bracing and important as Muddy Waters' live recordings from England from a year later. Three of the cuts weren't released at the time because they heavily featured Dick Bishop on rhythm guitar and backing vocals, and a few weeks after these shows he signed with a rival record company as a competitor to Donegan. The Albert Hall cuts are a mess, but they are fun, and the crowd's enthusiasm, even for these obviously troubled performances, is an indication of just how popular the artist was at the time. Ironically, Donegan had begun to change his sound and image by mid-1957, so the Conway Hall tracks, recorded to help fill the gap of no new studio records, became impossible to release, except as artifacts of his earlier sound. Now, many years later, they're priceless documents of a great moment in England's formative rock & roll years.

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