Various Artists

The American Folk Blues Festival

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"A rare collection of performances by America's premier bluesmen at the peak of their artistry" proclaims the cover of this disc, and that's no idle boast. Culled from 33 tracks on two DVDs released simultaneously, these 16 tunes -- recorded at various times during the titular five years -- were performed live in German TV studios and thought lost until recently discovered. Although the audio is mono, it's immaculately clean, and each instrument is clearly audible, an amazing feat for TV sound during these years. The sampler is heavy on Willie Dixon-booked Chicago acts such as Sonny Boy Williamson, Otis Rush, and Howlin' Wolf (the only artist with two tracks), but also features folk-bluesman Mississippi Fred McDowell and Texans T-Bone Walker and Lightnin' Hopkins. The predominantly unplugged (except for electric guitar) acts are all excellent, but only Wolf and Williamson show glimpses of their typically wilder stage antics in front of audiences that were far less sedate. Muddy Waters' version of "Got My Mojo Working" in particular is one of the most restrained of that usually frenzied song. In fact, some of the more raucous acts from the DVDs, such as Earl Hooker and Magic Sam, didn't make the cut to CD, possibly because they were too dissimilar from the rest of the pack. The 28-page book is filled with rare pictures (including a few of John Lee Hooker, who is not represented here) and an explanation of the history and importance of these yearly European treks in exposing American blues artists to the rest of the world. Especially impressionable were young British blues lovers such as the Rolling Stones and members of Led Zeppelin, who were heavily influenced by seeing these bluesmen live. Although it's a little short (why not add 20 more minutes to the CD, since each DVD has an hour's worth of music?), this is still a goldmine for folk and Chicago blues fans since these historic performances were never easily available in pristine sound before.

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