Henry Townsend

The Real St. Louis Blues

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The ageless Henry Townsend is a national treasure, with an amazing eight-decade musical career that has seen him help shape the sound of St. Louis blues (both on guitar and piano), define it, and even restructure it in his current configuration as the elder statesman of the genre. This intimate and charming album was recorded over three days in 1979 at Townsend's home and at a piano store in St. Louis. Rolling tape in a piano store definitely has its advantages, since Townsend is featured on a variety of pianos, from a nine-foot grand to several uprights, and even takes a turn at playing boogie on a harpsichord. He plays plenty of acoustic guitar here, too, and on a couple of tracks, he picks up an electric, and the end result is a wonderfully varied portrait of this compelling bluesman. One of the things that makes Townsend distinctive is the way he improvises lyrics over set patterns, giving his songs surprising freshness even as they also display an eerie familiarity. This is the way the blues is supposed to be executed, and even though Townsend was in his 70s when these recordings were done, his playing and singing are spry, sharp and intelligent. Highlights include a cover of James P.Johnson's "My Babe" (the only track not written by Townsend), "Can't Help Myself" (with Townsend on electric guitar and the clear sound of a parakeet in the background), and the final track, "Going Back Home," which has Townsend tearing loose on a harpsichord. A wonderful set.

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