John Lee Hooker

Live at Newport

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AllMusic Review by Jesse Jarnow

Live at Newport is an addition to the already huge pile of archival John Lee Hooker releases (one that will surely continue to grow as licenses to Hooker's myriad recordings for different labels exchange hands). What differentiates this release from many of the others is that it focuses on a pair of acoustic performances from the bluesman, a rarity in the Hooker catalog. In the early '60s, at the height of the "folk scare," Hooker stepped in front of crowds -- at clubs, coffee houses, and festivals -- with his acoustic guitar. Live at Newport is split between two performances at the Newport Folk Festival: a solo shot from 1960 and a set (or set highlights?) with upright bassist Bill Lee from 1963. The former is stunning for its clarity, reveling in a warmth that can only be attained from placing a microphone in the vicinity of a man with an acoustic guitar, turning the levels way up, and absorbing everything: the scratch of the pick on the strings, the echo of the performer's foot as it taps on the platform, the bristle of buttons as they graze the back of the guitar, the intake of breath. The first cuts on the disc are exquisitely rendered, with a great sense of dynamics inherent in Hooker's patented free blues style. The sound quality of the latter tracks leaves much to be desired, with Hooker's guitar often getting lost in the ambience of the room or the muffled thump of Lee's bass. Still, there is some wonderfully intimate playing as Hooker simultaneously leads and plays off of Lee's parts.

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