Robert Pete Williams

Those Prison Blues

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It is an interesting type of blindfold test to play these recordings of this artist that were made when he was in prison serving a life sentence for murder, then compare them with tracks he cut after being released, supposedly for his great abilities as a blues improviser. The question might be, how would life in the prison environment affect the musical output of a performer such as this, and can a listener tell the difference between the blues of a prisoner and a free man? There are several tracks here in which the perfunctory nature of the performances simply do not compare with the majesty of later recordings Robert Pete Williams made when breathing free air again. Perhaps this is why some of these tracks were not released the first time around. However, the flaws described are not consistently true about this entire set of prison performances, and neither is the dimensionless recording sound that the listener is initially greeted with, the strings flapping as if tuning up would have brought on the guards. Things pick up with "Texas Blues," in which the guitarist's fingers seem to be flying over the strings, picking out notes the way a bird might nip at a seed on the ground. The guitar sound becomes transformed on "Louise," emphasizing middle tones in a way that reaches into the gut. At this juncture, one might be willing to admit the obvious intensity of a prison performance when it represents a human's only possible emotional outlet, but from the sound of this man's blues, this remained pretty much the case long after he was released from the slammer. Although some of these tracks are brilliant, there are more consistent collections available by this artist, as well as ones that are more generous with playing time.

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