While Mess of Blues may not be the last Jeff Healey recording we see, it is the one that will be accorded as his epitaph, seeing that it was issued in America less than two months after his death just three weeks shy of his 42nd birthday. There is no ambulance chasing or grave robbing process involved here. The album is sanctioned; it was set to be issued before he passed away. Healey wrote the liner notes for this date (his first blues release in eight years!), and explained the song choices he made for it. The strange thing when considering all the different recordings he made during his short life is that Healey's career is bookended -- on tape at least -- by blistering electric blues-rock albums. The very genre that established Healey's considerable (and deserved) reputation as a guitarist is also the one that underscored it at the end.
Mess of Blues contains ten cuts, all of them chosen by Healey from what he considered "audience favorites," rather than his own or his fine band's preferred tunes. Four of these were recorded in front of audiences at the Islington Academy in London and, appropriately enough, at Healey's Roadhouse (his club) in Toronto. The other six were cut at Studio 92 in Canada by Norm Barker and Richard Uglow. Make no mistake: while this an electric blues record to be sure, the very eclectic selection of tracks also puts the words "blues-rock" in bold print. One example is the scorched earth reading of Neil Young's "Like a Hurricane." But there are others, too: the New Orleans-funked up second-line rhythmic pulse shoved right up against early rockabilly in the version of Hank Williams' "Jambalaya"; the excellent tribute to fellow Canadians (with an American drummer) the Band and songwriter Robbie Robertson with a moving version of "The Weight." This is a nearly reverential interpretation with brief, beautiful guitar fills by Healey and Dan Noordermeer, and brilliant piano work by Dave Murphy. But there are plenty of blues as well. There are the screaming guitar freak-outs on Sonny Thompson's "I'm Torn Down" that opens the disc, and the old-school R&B blues of "Shake, Rattle and Roll," updated by this killer band for the 21st century; Doc Pomus' terrific jump blues-meets-doo wop "Mess O' Blues," and Murphy's roadhouse rocker "It's Only Money," (which he sings). But the greatest moments here are Healey playing the slow, deeply moving electric guitar-drenched "How Blue Can You Get," that begins with a long biting guitar solo, and the classic "Sittin' on Top of the World," that fuses the loping original version's tempo with the rockist one done by Peter Green and the original Fleetwood Mac back in the late '60s. This is a fitting send-off, beautifully recorded and presented by Germany's Ruf imprint (though it is readily available in the United States and Canada) and the only tribute that really counts: a man's next record. Cancer may have gotten Healey in the end, but as evidenced by this CD, he went out like a champ of an artist, still hungry, still restless, still playing his ass off and seeking out the elusive heart of the blues and popular songs he loved in life.