One of three simultaneously released budget-priced Alligator blues compilations (the other two are Crucial Guitar Blues and Crucial Chicago Blues), Crucial Harmonica Blues is a 12-track anthology of the Chicago-based label's most popular and legendary harp artists. The track list reads like a who's who of harmonica with James Cotton, Big Walter Horton, Charlie Musselwhite, Carey Bell, Billy Boy Arnold, and Sonny Terry all contributing a track apiece. The tunes cover the years from 1972-2002 (practically spanning the label's existence) as well as a variety of blues settings. Acoustic Piedmont style is handled by Cephas & Wiggins with an instrumental showcase called "Burn Your Bridges" that proves non-amplified playing can be just as fiery as the electric approach favored by the majority of these artists. Those who enjoy speed over emotion can latch onto Sugar Blue's lip-shredding attack on "One More Mile to Go," or William Clarke's husky playing on the appropriately titled "Blowin' Like Hell." A jazzier West Coast style is exemplified by Little Charlie & the Nightcats' "Coastin' Hank," a showpiece for the great Rick Estrin. "Broke and Hungry" from the label's 1990 Harp Attack! showcase features both Junior Wells and Billy Branch. Liner notes only advertise the albums these tunes are culled from and the lack of personnel is a significant omission even if this is a budget-priced release. As a sampler though, this is an effective way to taste the label's harp roster and should introduce all but hardcore fans to names they might not have known before.
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AllMusic Review by Hal Horowitz