Big Bill Broonzy

Amsterdam Live Concerts 1953

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There's no shortage of live and studio recordings from Big Bill Broonzy's European appearances during the '50s -- if not as common as Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee live sets, they are out there. That said, this two-CD set is still a dazzling addition to Broonzy's discography, on technical as well as musical grounds. It not only captures him on two excellent nights of performance, but also -- thanks to the technical expertise of Louis Van Gasteren, the sound engineer (and later a movie producer) who made the tapes -- in amazing fidelity, equal to the best work of any record label. Broonzy had led the way to Europe for a generation of elder statesmen of the blues, and his performances were so powerful and so commanding -- and well received -- that for 15 years after he first went over, American bluesmen were able to follow his path across the Atlantic, to bigger, more enthusiastic audiences and better paying gigs than they'd ever known in their native United States. In what had to be his first taste of respect as a musician from a white audience, by most accounts Broonzy seemed to revel in the reception that he got, and the relatively free and open societies (compared with what existed in the United States at the time) that he encountered in Europe. He never lived long enough to play in any of the big folk festivals of the early '60s, so what we have to go on comes from these European performances. Amsterdam Live Concerts 1953 was recorded across two nights and includes over 110 minutes of performing; Broonzy's playing as well as his singing takes on profound dimensions. His highly animated guitar part on "John Henry" is similar here to what he uses on the same song from his 1952 London appearance, as released by the Jasmine label, as well as elsewhere -- but it is recorded much more closely on this set, so that you can actually hear the action on the strings; he also excels as a singer on these sets, and there are moments that go beyond the singing; when Broonzy introduces "Back-Water Blues" with talk of a flood in which stranded survivors starved to death, it not only is a topical reference to then-recent events in Holland, but also resonates across 52 years to events in New Orleans. The vocal pyrotechnics that he uses on that and other numbers, coupled with the virtuoso guitar work throughout, make this essential listening for any blues enthusiast, even more so than Broonzy's '50s sides for Verve Records, because he is more impressive working in front of an audience. As the liner notes reveal, Broonzy had a special relationship with his Dutch audience, and his involvements in Amsterdam would become even more personal later in the decade, so perhaps it is fitting that this body of recordings -- done entirely with the artist's approval at the time -- should emerge from those performances. The price is steep, and it's taken a long time for all of it to emerge, but the material is unique in quality and content and has been packaged with the kind of care that one routinely expects from companies such as Bear Family.

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