Lonnie Donegan

Showcase . . . Plus

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Sequel Records has decided to honor Lonnie Donegan with its Lonnie 2000 series, reissuing all of his classic Pye/Nixa sides from 1955 through 1962, and Showcase...Plus is the place to begin. The first 13 tracks on this 26-song CD are from various EPs and singles cut by Donegan in late 1955 and early 1956, doing a wide range of country blues and folk material, with repertory by Leroy Carr, Leadbelly, and Woody Guthrie interspersed among country and cowboy numbers, work songs, and field hollers that go back too far for authorship to be identified. There's also one fine Chris Barber/Lonnie Donegan original, "Harmonica Blues," dating from 1955 and never before issued. Apart from the excellent sound, the surprising element of this body of songs is just how bracing it remains almost 50 years after it was recorded -- the tendency is to dismiss the skiffle boom as an embarrassing fluke, but in fact the level of musicianship achieved by Donegan and company (especially guitarist/singer Dick Bishop) was exceptional, and their feel for the material was a match for that of any white Americans this side of Bob Dylan. Additionally, Donegan was extremely charismatic as a performer, and not just within the context of his time -- he would have found some kind of audience at almost any point in the 1950s in England. Some of the songs from the original Showcase album do show a certain confidence and assertiveness seeping in, moving the music in more of a slick, popular direction. The version of Leroy Carr's "How Long, How Long Blues" is almost as much a jazz piece as a blues workout, with guitarist Denny Wright subbing on the piano. Having replaced Bishop in 1956, Wright is playing most of the lead guitar on those tracks, on the accompanying single sides, and on a pair of previously unissued tracks: the Pye re-recording of "Rock Island Line" and the slow blues "I've Got Rocks in My Bed," where he gets to play some Scrapper Blackwell-style licks. But Wright's best single moment comes in his fiery but all too brief electric guitar solo during "Cumberland Gap." (Strangely enough, a live film clip of Donegan and Wright doing that song exists, in the movie The Six-Five Special). The disc closes with Donegan's arrangement of "Love Is Strange," cut under the direction of Joe Meek (who suggested the clinking bottle percussion) and given a beat that makes it sound more like a calypso number.

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