Various Artists

Beginner's Guide to the Blues

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Nascente's three-disc blues box set is a pretty useful introduction to the blues mainly because of the way it is set up, with the first disc featuring country blues selections, most of them from the 1920s and '30s, followed by a disc of electric urban blues, drawn mainly from the '50s, and a last disc of contemporary performers who are attempting to play and further define the blues in the 21st century. Notable tracks on the first two discs include Robert Johnson's "Crossroad Blues," Charley Patton's "High Water Everywhere," Bukka White's "Fixin' to Die Blues," Elmore James' "Dust My Broom," and Jimmy Reed's "Bright Lights, Big City," all of which show the blues as a vital and dynamic form. The third disc here, however, has the feel of a museum with beautiful, perfectly arranged exhibits, and while a track like Kelly Joe Phelps' version of "Hard Time Killin' Floor Blues," for instance, is quite stunning; there is something studied about it, a trait not found in Skip James' original treatment of the song. Somewhere along the line the blues became a music to study and reinterpret, which is fine, but it leads to a very different place than Charley Patton stomping his feet and roaring out his songs at a Saturday night juke. In the end it's a matter of utility, and the blues will survive either way, one suspects, because it is so fundamentally simple to grasp and play, and adorned or unadorned, studied or not, it's still going to be the blues.

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