Various Artists

Chicago Blues: A Living History

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This historic compilation of classic Chicago blues from six decades brought through contemporary recording terms is a loving, two-CD set of music that is not interpreted or reinvented as it is played faithfully to the core. A fairly set rhythm section featuring guitarist Billy Flynn, bassist Felton Crews, and drummer Kenny "Beedy Eyes" Smith, backs modern-day living legends like Billy Boy Arnold, Lurrie Bell, Billy Branch, and John Primer on tunes penned by both Sonny Boy Williamsons, Big Bill Broonzy, Big Maceo Merriweather, Elmore James, Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, the Hooker Brothers, Buddy Guy, and others. Considerable help is given by harmonicist Matthew Skoller (brother of producer Larry Skoller,) keyboardist Johnny Iguana, vocalist Mike Avery (cousin of Magic Sam), and lead guitarist Carlos Johnson. No stone is left unturned in bringing these musicians together for select tracks that represent the heart of modern Chicago blues without resorting to a pure hits catalog. Of course blues lovers will easily recognize these choices, but not as a compilation of all-time greatest popular songs. On the disc celebrating music from 1940-1955, Big Maceo Merriweather's "Chicago Breakdown," "Feel Like Going Home" by Muddy Waters, the all-time great tune by Elmore James "I Believe," and Little Walter's "Hate to See You Go" all retain that timeless feel of real blues dealing. Iguana is the star, whether playing solo boogie-woogie piano, working with Primer on an Elmore James type dirty blues, in an Otis Spann mode with the hard-edged sound of James via Flynn with Bell vocally shouting it out, or alongside Branch's vintage harmonic sound in straight urban boogie style. "Moanin' at Midnight" is also one of the truly great blues tunes, and Primer and Skoller dig deep into Howlin' Wolf's persona. Side two fetes songs from 1955-1991, including Jimmy Reed's signature steady rolling "Can't Stand to See You Go" with Primer and Skoller again doing the honors, and the familiar to all "Hoodoo Man Blues" of Buddy Guy and Junior Wells featuring Branch in his element, pure and driven. The latter period Muddy Waters number, "One More Mile," is a more contemporary rockin' blues with Iguana on organ backing up Branch. This side also features the lone track written by one of the participants, Arnold's "I Wish You Would" in a choogling beat, as well as the Earl Hooker instrumental "Hooking It," a cool jam cemented by Flynn's wah-wah guitar. The rest of the material is far from filler, but instead intelligent choices that should stir the imagination of blues lovers, and send historians to the archives in a quest to discover how well these covers are done compared to the originals. An essential item for both newbies to the blues and grizzled veterans who think they've heard it all, this collection fully lives up to its title, and comes highly recommended.

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