John Lee Hooker

Free Beer and Chicken

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In some ways this is a typical John Lee Hooker album; in other ways it is totally unlike any other he did. Being interesting can be a curse, however, as the music itself just isn't that inspired. Of course, if these tracks were released by an unknown that might be another story, but this is John Lee Hooker. Yes, this is Hooker, fiddling around under the thumb of an ABC contract and seemingly in the hands of producer Ed Michel, whose credits and track record of good albums is not to be sneezed at. Free Beer and Chicken has the sound of a collection of tracks that were salvaged from some ambitious but never finished project involving dozens of guests. That's one thing that is typical, or at least would become typical in the last, most high-profile decade of Hooker's career. His albums from the '90s became limousine rides in which faces from People magazine would wind up sitting atop the listener's speaker box, at least symbolically. Michel predicts this trend by inviting Joe Cocker as well as several other stars whose identities were lost when the label cheaped out on including the insert after the first pressing of the album sold out. Michel also invited some of the artists he was producing for ABC's sister company, Impulse!, creating some unusual partners for Hooker, such as Sam Rivers on flute and Michael White on violin. This album is thus useful to connect vast portions of the avant-garde jazz, blues, and rock scenes in degrees of separation games, but in the case of Rivers his appearance is no big deal musically. White does crank out some good violin solos, while the burbles and mutterings of strange funk guitarists such as Wa Wa Watsou and Mel Brown are diverting, if not moving. Still, Free Beer and Chicken gets a low rating due to the presence of all the talent mentioned, as well as the genius of Hooker: With all that going for it, this should have been a much better album.

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