10 Ways To Listen To The Blues
Listening to a good blues band at my wonderful local microbrewery Lovibonds earlier this year, a friend of mine said that he liked the music but did not know much about it or where to start. This post on my website has been amazingly popular.
Now I am no academic expert in this matter, but I have been listening to blues in one form or another since I was about 12. I know that it started in America’s Deep South where it expressed the pain and frustration of the ex-slave, black rural underclass. It moved up to Chicago where it met electric guitars, left the front porch and entered smoky bars and clubs. Next up, the blues was embraced by bohemian white boys in 1960s England who loved it for what it was without any of racial baggage that, in its own country, was keeping the music trapped. This led to blues’ transfiguration into rock. Today it influences just about every genre from crooning to reggae, Nashville country and pop.
So here goes, for my friend and anyone else who fancies a crash course, 10 blues albums to show you the way. Where possible, I have linked to live performances:
Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee – Live at the New Penelope Cafe. I picked this album first because Terry and McGhee were among the first bluesmen I every heard. I bought an album (not this one) in my early teens from a shop somewhere in Switzerland and have always loved them. This album is relatively sophisticated by the standards of old acoustic blues, but takes you into their Georgia and Tennessee birthrights nonetheless. The track “Cornbread, peas and black molasses” just about sums it up – prison, poverty and the call of Momma and home.
Robert Johnson – The Complete Recordings. Don’t be too put off by the title of this album — he only left 29 recorded songs and 13 alternative takes on them. No journey through the blues could miss him. It is said he learnt the guitar from the Devil, who tuned it for him at a crossroads in Mississippi in exchange for his soul. Hence the song “Crossroads”. He was also the first of a long, long line of musicians to die at age 27. Probably one of the most influential musicians of all time. Eric Clapton, for one, has put out a complete album of covers.
Howlin’ Wolf – His Best – One of the great early electric bluesmen and one of best blues vocalists. We are now beginning to move into the entertainment realm — that is something akin to a rock concert, albeit in a darkened club. Almost impossible not to sway along with the beat and that wonderful, wonderful gruff voice. LikeJohnson, Wolf has been a huge influence on white musicians. His magnificent “Sittin’ on top of the world” was covered by Cream and “Little Red Rooster” is a staple of The Rolling Stones. If you really want to see the maestro, check out this performance.
Various Artists – Paint It Blue – Ok, I am cheating a bit here. There are so many artists that need to be in this list — B.B. King, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker etc. But I want to give a list to work on to understand the blues and I would run out of 10 slots pretty quickly if I listed the albums of all the great. So I am including this absolute gem of an album because it shows the global links that have been created by the blues. The concept is that The Rolling Stones borrowed so many blues songs that great blues artists have been brought together to borrow some of theirs. The subtitle says it all – This Ain’t No Tribute. My favourite on the album is the great Taj Mahal’s rendition of “Honky Tonk Woman” (James Cotton’s blues harp is nothing to sniff at either). There is also an excellent “You can’t always get what you want” from Luther Allison and a really nice “(I can’t get no) Satisfaction” from Junior Wells.
John Mayall with Eric Clapton – Bluesbreakers – Blues crossed the Atlantic in the early 1960s and one of the earliest exponents was John Mayall. His band, The Bluesbreakers, was a proving ground for some of the greatest musicians of the era – Clapton, Jack Bruce, Peter Green, Mick Taylor, Harvey Mandel and Aynsley Dunbar to name a few. I could have put almost any Mayall album here because they all show how blues got into the British soul. This one is here because it features Clapton, who certainly must rank near the top of the world’s greatest blues guitarists. Mayall’s “What I’d Say” is a good example of The Bluesbreakers work on this album. To get a real feel for Clapton at his bluesy best, click on here for “Voodoo Chile” with Steve Winwood.
Fleetwood Mac – The Original Fleetwood Mac – I can hear it now: “Fleetwood Mac! Has he gone mad?” No, I haven’t. Before the flouncy, poppy Fleetwood Mac with Stevie Nicks, there was Fleetwood Mac, the blues band with poor LSD-driven schizophrenic Peter Green at the helm. Green, Mick Fleetwood and John McVie were all graduates of the Mayall school (see above). I like the eponymous track “Fleetwood Mac” on this album but can’t find a link. So “Leaving Town Blues” will have to do. The song had an interesting English folk element too, showing how connected it all was becoming. Arguably the most famous Fleetwood Mac blues tune was “Black Magic Woman”, which for some reason is not on this album. They were great. What a pity it all went pop.
Canned Heat – Boogie with Canned Heat – Back across the Atlantic again and we have the U.S. ’60s generation embracing blues and getting heavier. Canned Heat were an aficionado’s band, famous for playing “Going up the Country” at Woodstock and being one of the select few to play a free gig in London’s Hyde Park (That was me, guys, towards the back on the right). The music differed from British blues in that it was rockier and in that sense more mainstream and druggier. Good example on the Boogie album is “Amphetamine Annie”, which was perhaps more sarcastic than it sounds to a modern ear. More traditional is “Marie Laveau”, with the great Henry “The Sunflower” Vestine at his best. Marie, incidentally, was the voodoo queen of New Orleans: Just like the blues she could do strange things to your soul.
Led Zeppelin – Led Zeppelin – The first album of what was to become one of the most famous bands in the world is essentially blues. Blues with an attitude that later morphed into nascent Heavy Metal. It is a long way from the Alabama front porch, the smoky Chicago bar, or even the London clubs. But you only have to listen to “You shook me” or the immediately following “Dazed and Confused” to see where Plant, Page, Bonham and Jones were coming from. Not surprising, really, that in his mid 60s, bassist John Paul Jones finds himself bluesing along with Seasick Steve.
Gregg Allman – Low Country Blues – If Allman wasn’t a good old boy from Tennessee, this wonderful collection of blues songs from the U.S. Southeast could be seen as a bit retro (it came out in 2011). But it is honest to its core, 11 beautifully interpreted songs from the likes of Muddy Waters and Sleep John Estes and one from Allman himself. My clear favourite is Estes’ “Floating Bridge”, the story of a turning point in a man’s life after he has nearly drowned. But its hard not to smile at Skip James’ lyrics on “Devil Got My Woman” — “I’d rather be the devil, than be that woman man.” Blues is all about lyrics as well as stories and playing. This album is a great one for that.
Joanne Shaw Taylor – White Sugar – For the last item, I reckon it is time that I got a woman on this list. Most women blues artists are singers. There is an excellent compilation, called The Great Women Blues Singers, that runs the gamut from Memphis Minnie to Nina Simone. But Shaw Taylor — found here playing “Bones” from the White Sugar — is different. She is a white English woman in her mid-20s who sings like Janis Joplin and plays guitar like Stevie Ray Vaughn – a living monument to blues as a genre for everyone.