The Chicago blues style, emanating from the cold and windy North, is kind of an irony. It's actually rooted in the Southern delta tradition of basic acoustic guitar and harmonica augmented by amplified instruments that nonetheless make way for the dominance of the mouth harp, placing the blessed American device way up front. It migrated when black workers had to follow industrial work northwards. Thus, when we speak of the Chicago style, we're really referring to a Louisiana (and elsewhere) tradition modernized. The British were so avid for it, and invested so much into it, that the style split itself off and became what's often referred to as 'dirty white blues' (by far my favorite style), emphasizing guitar, but there's another anomaly here. Sonny Boy Williamson (actually Sonny Boy Williamson II—Aleck Miller), a Memphis native epitomized the sound as much as anyone, though he's only trepidatiously placed in the genre. The Brits, however, went wild for him (and the guy was pseudonymed after the great Chicago bluesman John Lee Williamson—Sonny Boy Williamson I). When he traveled across the waters, he was eagerly sat down with the Yardbirds and Animals, among others. And then there was Peter Green, Jeremy Spencer, the early Fleetwood Mac, and his and their involvement with the Chicago sound and musicians
That vibe was so popular that Americans began adopting the style back again once the English had it re-rigged, Stateside notably in the person of Paul Butterfield and others…before he moved into the much more soulful Electric Flag. The impulse to keep the style vital, though, seemed to collapse not long after Butterfield's exeunt, kept alive sideways by very good but obscurer composers. The Severn label, on the other hand, wasn't buying into rumors that the genre was all but dead and issued the 2005 Diamonds in the Rough Chicago Blues Harmonica Project, which went over extremely well. This repeat performance, the 2009 version, now ushers in a half dozen new harp masters backed by a fine band giving each player plenty of room to strut chops and voice. The result, it should surprise no one, will meet with just as enthusiastic critical applause.
There's a good deal of that bayou swing, perhaps best exemplified in Big D's Well You Know, running through the disc but also the soul and R&B that caught Butterfield (listen to Jeff Taylor covering Honest I Do) and then, of course, just pure down-home Delta. For an incredibly muscular updated Chicago sound that's yet respectful to the root, the reader is recommended to the label's new Steve Guyger release (here), as the Harmonica Project is more in line with the halcyon past in black blues. This doesn't mean anything's antiquated, though. Reginald Cooper's Shade Tree Mechanic demonstrates the exact opposite, a ribald song sparkling as much in the guitar work as in Cooper's exuberant vocals and harmonica. In the vocal department, Little Arthur Duncan holds sway with a unique tone stuffed full of emotion, drenched in the classic airs…but destined never to be heard again. This was his last recording session, as he passed away in 2008 in his mid-70s. Thus, in more ways than one, More Rare Gems is a tribute to him and the music he was so skillfully involved with all his life.
Edited by: David N. Pyles
Copyright 2009, Peterborough Folk Music Society.
This review may be reprinted with prior permission and attribution.
Website design by David N. Pyles