Like the previous three volumes of this superb series, American Folk Blues Festivals 1963-1966: The British Tours presents about 75 minutes of mid-'60s European television performances by blues legends. The only real difference is that all of these were filmed in England (hence the subtitle "The British Tours 1963-1966"), where appreciation of the blues was really taking off and, of course, making a big impression on the U.K. pop scene via artists like the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton. While the word "legends" is thrown around a lot in reviewing vintage blues compilations, this is one instance where it's not overhyping the case. Every single performer here is legendary. Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, and Sonny Boy Williamson were Chicago blues giants,; the more rural and rawer side of the form is caught by Lightnin' Hopkins and Big Joe Williams; R&B is represented by Big Joe Turner, and soul by Sugar Pie DeSanto; and the blues' roots in jazz and gospel are captured by Lonnie Johnson and Sister Rosetta Tharpe respectively. Every single performer here is caught, in well-preserved black-and-white footage, at or near the peak of his or her form, sometimes with some of their very most famous songs, whether it's Waters doing "Got My Mojo Working," Williams playing "Baby Please Don't Go," or Williamson singing "Bye Bye Bird." That's not even mentioning the top talents that can be seen as accompanists at various points, including bassist Willie Dixon, guitarists Hubert Sumlin and Otis Rush, and pianists Sunnyland Slim and Otis Spann.
As for the most unusual and colorful performances, perhaps Williamson wins on that account -- though not by much -- by playing one end of a harmonica without holding it, as if he's chewing a cigar. Also novel is Junior Wells' 1966 performance of Ray Charles' "What'd I Say," delivered (and danced through) in modified James Brown fashion; it might not be the song you most associate with classic blues (or even Wells' blues), but it's interesting in part just for that reason. And while Johnson and Tharpe were long past their commercial prime on record, their clips (especially Tharpe's, which were done on a disused railway station) prove they still had plenty of gas left. It might be heretical to say so, but the arrangement Howlin' Wolf plays of his classic "Smokestack Lightning" is disappointingly different from the familiar '50s single, removing the tune's distinctive menace and changing the melody almost entirely into a more ordinary, standard amiable blues progression (though Wolf's actual stage presence and vocal delivery is still mesmerizing). As for another mild criticism, it would have been nice if more specific information about the filming of these specific clips was included, though there's a fine essay by Mike Rowe about the early tours of Britain by U.S. performers in general. That's the smallest of complaints, however, about a set that presents some of the greatest blues film performances of all time, in some cases offering some of the few instances in which these vital artists were even filmed.