The Kentucky Headhunters don’t have a schmooze button. They come out whompin’ and stompin’ at full tilt, slinging musical mayhem by the bucketload. The lineup has shifted back and forth a time or two, but the sound has remained the same: hard-core blue-collar bar band boogie and blues.
The blues part wasn’t all that obvious ’til they teamed up with Chuck Berry pianist Johnny Johnson for 2015’s Meet Me in Bluesland. That’s the record that got them signed to Alligator. But that release was originally recorded 12 years before as part of a session that yielded 2003’s Soul, with leftover tracks the Headhunters had intended to be released as a collaboration with Johnson, who died two years later. Finally released at the urging of Johnson’s widow, the tracks revealed that the band formerly known as Southern rockers had a blue streak a mile wide. And as great as that album was, there was even more stellar leftover material in the vaults from that session, including the three bonus tracks that close this release.
Live At the Ramblin’ Man Fair was recorded in 2016 on their first UK tour, when guitarist Richard Young, at the urging of his son, Black Stone Cherry drummer John Fred, was finally persuaded to conquer his fear of flying, since the tour bus didn’t float.
The band didn’t know they were being recorded, so they there’s no pretension or posing here, just the Headhunters doing what they always do, banging out a sweaty, rockin’, raucous set of good-time stomp-and-holler blue-collar sing-along anthems.
“Stumblin’” is a great snapshot of the Headhunters doing what they do best, pounding out a dance tune that you don’t have to know how to dance to partake in. “Lets go stumblin’ cause you know we can’t dance,” bassist Doug Phelps yowls, Greg Martin’s guitar chooglin’ like Georgia Satellite Dan Baird with Chuck Berry’s blood running hot in his veins. The song first appeared on 1993’s That’ll Work, with Johnson as sideman, resurfacing again on Meet Me in Bluesland with Johnson.
“Ragtop,” resurrected from their 1989 debut, Pickin’ on Nashville, sounds like the Everly Brothers doing rockabilly. The revised version sounds more like Dwight Yoakam’s 1993 country rocker “Fast As You” with Pete Anderson’s stinging lead.
“My Daddy Was A Milkman,” also culled from Pickin’ On Nashville, gets heated up to a blues boil from the country-twang Nashville version.
“Shufflin” Back To Memphis,” from Meet Me in Bluesland, is as advertised: “We gonna go to Memphis, Tennessee, and get a little bit greasy right here,” Phelps announces just before Martin steps up and commences to splatter enough greasy blews around to fill up a tanker truck.
“Rock and Roller,” a Headhunters original, is juiced up somethin’ considerable with Johnson’s boogie-woogie piano splashing around like a fat man in a bathtub, Martin’s guitar channeling Luther Allison flirting with electrocution when he gets too near Johnson’s bathwater spillover.
But the boys saved the best for last. In 1963, Robert Higginbotham’s alter ego Tommy Tucker had a hit with a song about his babe who looked so good when she got dressed up that he advised her to “wear some boxin’ gloves in case some fool might wanna fight.” Since then, most every aspiring bluesman had to have “Hi Heel Sneakers” tucked away in his kit bag to get through an evening. Even some decidedly non-bluesmen, including Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, and Stevie Wonder, have taken a run at it as well. But with Johnson on board, this one really bounces on its toes, his piano providing a slippery surface for Martin to glide around on with a false sense of security while he bides his time resting on the bench to come back on the ice, eluding his pursuers, racing for the goal line.
Mighty fine work on a first pond-crossing gig that shows that the Headhunters’ appeal has no boundaries.
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