What better place to record live blues than at the yearly W.C. Handy Awards ceremony, the genre's most prestigious event? These ten highlights of shows recorded from 1996-2001 (with 1997 conspicuously missing), capture the artists at the top of their game in front of -- and often playing along with -- their peers and influences. Some, such as Luther Allison and Rufus Thomas, passed shortly after these performances were captured for posterity, but both churn through energetic and enthusiastic renditions of their popular tunes. Allison in particular is electrifying as he blasts into "Cherry Red Wine" with the Memphis Horns, trashing just about all other versions of his signature tune. His son Bernard teams up with Deborah Coleman for an exhilarating take on the elder Allison's "Bad Love." Bonnie Raitt joins Thomas for a frisky "Walkin' the Dog" and closes the disc with a spunky, slide guitar-propelled "Three Time Loser," a Don Covay song she says she learned from Wilson Pickett. Joe Louis Walker, although winning for best blues band in 1996, kicks the set off with a soulful solo showcase on "Bluesifying." Taj Mahal exhibits his jazzy side on 2001's "Senor Blues," the year he won best blues band honors. Susan Tedeschi burns on "Just Won't Burn" and Bobby Rush proves again why he consistently wins Entertainer of the Year awards on a typically raunchy and playful "Hootchie Man" from 2001. Paul Rishell and Annie Raines rise to the occasion as the only acoustic Delta performers on the disc, which is definitely tilted in favor of more commercially viable, R&B-influenced fare. The music is immaculately recorded and the album's pacing makes for a terrific listening experience. Here's hoping there are many more volumes that are this well conceived.
AllMusic Review by Hal Horowitz