Various artist | Chicago Blues: A Living History

Raisin (2009)
By TED DROZDOWSKI  |  April 14, 2009
4.0 4.0 Stars

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The first two generations of electric Chicago blues are either dead or on the endangered list, but this double-disc set proves the style still has teeth and claws. Especially when John Primer revs his guitar like a turbine to pay tribute to Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters, and fellow six-stringer Lurrie Bell howls out Otis Rush's "My Love Will Never Die" as if he were fighting for the genre's life.

The subtitle describes the concept behind these 21 revisited classics, which are arranged to trace the music's development from 1940 (John Lee "Sonny Boy" Williamson's "My Little Machine") to the present (Buddy Guy's "Damn Right, I've Got the Blues"). It also alludes to the session's leaders. Harmonica man Arnold and guitarist Primer are both part of the music's second generation, apprentices of Williamson and Waters, respectively. Daredevil player Bell is the son of harp legend Carey Bell, and Branch learned harmonica from James Cotton, Junior Wells, Big Walter, and the senior Bell.

They put their own artistic stamp on these tunes while remaining faithful to core arrangements and era-specific sounds. So Branch adds a little tonal vinegar to the tail of Junior Wells's "Hoodoo Man Blues," and Primer's amps hum with Chess-era distortion. The four frontmen enjoy the crack support of a back-up that includes Kenny Smith (son of Willie "Big Eyes" Smith) on drums and guitarist Billy Flynn, who elegantly slides and wah-wahs his way through Earl Hooker's signature "Hooking It"; and the ensemble playing captures the spare perfection of the '40s and '50s recordings that first translated the elements of Delta blues — 12-bar structures, slide guitar, call-and-response lines, African-rooted rhythms — to the beat and buzz of the big city. These performances aren't just retro; they're real.

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