Considering how important the blues were to the growth of American music, it's little short of amazing that they flew under the radar of mainstream recognition in their native form for most of the 20th century. Until major country blues artists of the '20s and '30s were rediscovered by collectors in the early '60s, most of them had scarcely been heard outside the Deep South. Modern electric performers fared well on the so-called "Chitlin' Circuit" of venues in African-American communities, but it wasn't until late in the decade, after being lionized by British stars, that they had visibility among mainstream listeners. With this in mind, it's only so surprising that the 1969 Ann Arbor Blues Festival, held on the campus of the University of Michigan, was one of the first times a significant number of major blues artists were booked to play on the same bill, appearing before an audience dominated by young white listeners. The organizers chose their performers wisely, and the stellar lineup included giants of electric blues (Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Howlin' Wolf), legendary country blues performers (Son House, Mississippi John Hurt), outstanding modern acts (Luther Allison, Magic Sam), venerable elder statespeople (Big Joe Williams, Big Mama Thornton, Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup), and even some notable outliers (Clifton Chenier, appearing at a time when zydeco was little known among Midwestern blues fans). Considering the importance of the event, it's a shame that no one had the presence of mind to have professionals record the performances, but thankfully amateurs stepped in, and one of the fans who helped stage the festival brought along a tape recorder and documented most of the artists. These tapes went unheard outside a small circle of fans for nearly 50 years, but Third Man Records has belatedly compiled the highlights into a two-volume set, Ann Arbor Blues Festival 1969.
The audio is AM radio tinny (with the conversations of fans momentarily drowning out the playing), but the performances are clearly audible throughout, and the lo-fi recording adds to the gritty immediacy of the performances. More importantly, perhaps because so many of the artists were playing for friends and peers as much as the ostensive audience, the music is intense and fiery throughout, with many of the artists feeling the spirit and stretching out with a freedom they weren't afforded in the recording studio. It would be enough to hear unreleased live material from Junior Wells, T-Bone Walker, James Cotton, J.B. Hutto, and Roosevelt Sykes, as well as the artists previously mentioned. But everyone on board plays with an abundance of passion and fire, and if there isn't a lot of bass in this collection, there's more than enough soul to compensate. The 1969 Ann Arbor Blues Festival is widely regarded as a legendary event among blues purists, and this set lives up to the hype; anyone who loves the blues raw and direct will be thoroughly knocked out by this collection.