Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The Greatest Blues Rock Albums of All Time, Part I

It is a regrettable fact that I, like many Americans in my generation, learned about the blues from "British Invasion" bands, and only came to appreciate the grand old masters of the blues second-hand. But while many purists claim bands like The Bluesbreakers, Cream, The Animals, The Stones, Zeppelin, etc., were merely grave-robbing ghouls, stealing songs because of weak copyright protection, I am personally thankful that they resuscitated a dying art form in the 60s, a revival that brought the blues to unheard of popular heights.

There were lawsuits in regards to copyright infringements (the most notable being Willie Dixon's successful out-of-court settlement with Zeppelin over the song "Whole Lotta Love"), but the blues, in and of itself, has been a cannibalistic genre since the beginning. As I noted in a previous article, Big Bill Broonzy made the ultimate comment about the parasitic aspects of blues music when he stated emphatically in the 1930s: "You take one song and make fifty out of it...just change it a little bit."

In most cases, there was genuine respect between the grizzled old guard and the fledgling upstarts. One only has to listen to the incendiary musical exchange between John Lee Hooker and Canned Heat, or various other phenomenal pairings of old and new, like Sonny Boy Williamson with Jimmy Page, Fleetwood Mac with Willie Dixon, Otis Spann and Buddy Guy, or Muddy Waters with Johnny Winter, to see the mutual musical repartee and devotion. There is a camaraderie among blues performers that is rather unique, and only jazz comes close to that kind of feeling.

In addition to reviving the careers of such greats as Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Willie Dixon, Sonny Boy Williamson, Howlin' Wolf and Lightnin' Hopkins, the British and American blues revivals brought to light music of late, great departed musicians such as Robert Johnson, Elmore James, Lead Belly, Big Bill Broonzy, Mississippi John Hurt and Ma Rainey. I own at least one album (and in some cases several) from each of the blues masters I mentioned in the last two paragraphs just because Keith Richards and Eric Clapton decided the blues was "cool" when they were teenagers. Aint it strange how things work out?

The differentiation between blues and blues-rock is perhaps trivial, and often there is really no perceptible difference (in many cases, blues-rock is simply amplified blues); however, in the albums I have chosen, I was interested in offering the blues in a rock context, and in the sometimes not-so-subtle variations that stretched the genre beyond the mere 12-bar conventions of the form -- the reinvention of the standard, in much the same way progressive rock reinterpreted classical and jazz music with an amplified aesthetic for a new generation. In fact, many of albums herein are not entirely blues but an amalgam of different styles; yet the bluesy aspects of the releases are nevertheless pronounced and proved influential to later musicians.

In any case, whether you consider "blues rock" to be an evil misappropriation or a reverent adaptation, here's the first part of my overview of the greatest blues rock albums of all time (a future article will deal directly with the blues masters of the first half of the 20th century):

At Fillmore East (Deluxe Edition) - The Allman Brothers
At Fillmore East is a remarkable recording, a big ol' heaping helping of Southern-fried blues, and the 2003 release of the "Deluxe Edition of the Fillmore East Concerts" finally puts the shows in the proper context and includes all the pertinent songs from the concerts (for decades, the missing songs were available only in separate anthologies or on the Duane Allman requiem Eat a Peach). Forget about the Grateful Dead and their vaunted propensity for extended jamming, The Allman Brothers run circles around them (that, and Gregg Allman can actually sing, which is something no member of the Grateful Dead seemed able to accomplish in key). In any case, Duane Allman is great on slide-guitar, Dicky Betts does his best fleet-fingered accompaniment, and the addition of Thom Doucette on blues harp is an added bonus. There are so many important tunes here, I'd have to list them all to be fair. Okay, I'll list a few, One Way Out, Trouble No More, Drunken Hearted Boy and Stormy Monday.

Layla and other Assorted Love Songs - Derek and the Dominos
An essential album, and one of the greatest blues-rock recordings of all time. As a guitarist, I have to tip my hat to Clapton and Allman, who offer something beyond the 'super-group' hype of lesser combinations (Blind Faith leaps instantly to mind), and the result is an astounding set of songs. The depth of sorrow in the blues here is palpable, an anguish that often is missed in white-boy blues (as if simply knowing the notes results in a good blues recording -- it does not). I would point to three transcendent blues covers, Little Walter's Key to the Highway (one helluva dueling lead jam), Freddie King's Have You Ever Loved a Woman and Jimmie Cox's Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out as prime examples of Clapton not merely knowing the blues but revelling in it and living it. And as far as covers go, there is no better rendition of Hendrix's 'Little Wing' than on this album.

Exile on Main Street - The Rolling Stones
A toss up between Exile and Let It Bleed as the Stone's best album. I think I actually favor the more blues-tinged sound of 'Exile', and in particular I enjoy the stripped-down and raw nature of most of the tracks. Keith Richards and Co. are in fine drunken swagger on such tunes as the roadhouse rave-up Rip This Joint, Slim Harpo's sinewy Shake Your Hips, the country blues Sweet Virginia, and Robert Johnson's Stop Breaking Down. A very cohesive, focused recording and one of the last great Stones albums before Mick Jagger started hangin' with Bianca at Studio 54 and turned to disco. After that, they became a parody of themselves. Too bad. Great album.

Are You Experienced - The Jimi Hendrix Experience
One of the greatest debuts in the history of rock. Hendrix tore up the rock establishment at the Monterrey Pop festival, and then proceeded to shred the public's ears with this album. This single album is a greatest hits package for most bands, and most bands wish they had this many memorable songs -- in a career! For all that, this isn't even Hendrix's best album, which shows you the phenomenal talent that Hendrix had. Every song is good in its own particular way, but from a blues perspective, get the 1993 remaster which contains all the songs and singles from the annoyingly different UK and US original releases. Songs that have become standards of the blues idiom like Red House and Hey Joe, the funky, syncopated Highway Chile, and the psychedelic blues of I Don't Live Today are all superb examples of Hendrix's blues-drenched style. This album eclipses The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's as the best album of 1967, one of the greatest years for rock releases.

The Paul Butterfield Blues Band
One of the earliest and best emulators of the original Chicago blues, Paul Butterfield and his band (including future legends Mike Bloomfield and Elvin Bishop) released this milestone album in 1965. Butterfield's blues harp is blistering and is an essential primer for harmonica enthusiasts (check out Born in Chicago), and Bloomfield is a guitar virtuoso, which is readily apparent on Blues with a Feeling. More blues traditionalists (like the early Bluesbreakers and Fleetwood Mac) than innovators, The Paul Butterfield Blues Band was an important link between the original blues form and later rock reinterpretations. I just love the riffs on Our Love is Drifting and the muddy, marvelous distortion on the harp in Thank You, Mr. Poobah.

Highway 61 Revisited - Bob Dylan
Speaking of reinterpretations and innovation, Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited gave the blues an unexpected kick in the pants in 1965 and started a revolution. I'd offer you clips from the album, but it seems Bob and his record company have gotten parsimonious in their old age (no YouTube for you). Dylan chose the fabled "Highway 61" as the connector for the songs on this album, as the road is a touchstone of blues legend and the main thoroughfare for dissemination of the blues (Robert Johnson supposedly sold his soul at the crossroads of Highways 61 and 49, and blues belter Bessie Smith died in a car accident on 61). Dylan's lyricism expanded the blues format and was influential to the likes of Hendrix, Cream and The Beatles. Notable blues numbers: It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry (yes, I found a clip, which may soon be gone), "Tombstone Blues", "Highway 61 Revisited", "Just Like Tom Thumb Blues".

L.A. Woman - The Doors
L.A. Woman is the bluesiest of all Doors releases and is perhaps in a dead heat with their 1967 debut and Strange Days as their best album. I fondly recall my indescribable, jaw-dropping joy upon hearing Been Down So Long for the first time. Of course, I was stoned out of my mind at the time, but that's beside the point. The album is literally seething with blues, like the demented Crawling King Snake, the jazzy blues of Riders on the Storm, the devilishly playful (You Need Meat) Don't Go No Further sung by Ray Manzarek, and the ode to impotence Cars Hiss By My Window, featuring Jim Morrison's vocal approximation of a blues harp.

Cheap Thrills - Big Brother and the Holding Company
"Four gentleman and one great, great broad" is the introduction at the start of the album, and no better epitaph can be delivered here. Janis Joplin was a runaway train of booze-soaked ballads and a fiery ball of blues. The energy and emotion Joplin delivered is unparalleled in musical history -- you can literally feel it emanating from the speakers. One only has to hear Summertime or Ball and Chain to understand how Joplin inspired countless female vocalists over the past 40+ years. Honestly, there are very few singers, either male or female, who have been so influential. Just give a listen to Joplin playing the honky-tonk chanteuse on a song she wrote Turtle Blues, and it's no wonder the original title of this album was Sex, Drugs and Cheap Thrills (which Columbia Records, with their best 1967 corporate conservatism, declined).

Second Winter - Johnny Winter
Yes, it was a three-sided album (yup, the fourth side was left intentionally blank), but damn if it aint one of the best three-sided albums in existence! Of course, I can't name many three-sided albums, but you get my point, or rather you will once you crank up Second Winter. Like Hendrix's towering version of "All Along the Watchtower", Johnny Winter also outdoes Bob Dylan with his legendary slide masterpiece Highway 61 Revisited and lights up Chuck Berry's jheri curl on Johnny B. Goode. In additon, he belts out a wonderful Chicago-style swing blues tune on Miss Ann, and shuffle-slides along on I Love Everybody. An incendiary potpourri of slide guitar mastery.

Led Zeppelin II
Led Zeppelin's hardest rocking album, full of mean licks, catchy phrasing, and wild-ass rides from the left to the right speaker. It also features there heaviest blues riffs, such as on Whole Lotta Love which was, of course, the required hit that sent the band into the stratosphere. But I prefer the titanic Bring it on Home, the barely-concealed sexuality of The Lemon Song, and the frenetic blues landslide Heartbreaker. Hell, even the drum solo Moby Dick has a heavy blues riff. Anyway, not a clinker in the bunch, and Led Zeppelin II is essential for any fan of hard rock, blues rock, or followers of the noted blues fanatic J.R.R. Tolkien, who will enjoy the Gollum and Mordor reference in 'Ramble On', even if it is totally out of context (as was my mention of Tolkien's musical preferences).

Bridge of Sighs - Robin Trower
Listening to Bridge of Sighs, one can well understand why Robin Trower left Procol Harum. Simply put, Procol Harum's neo-classical compositions did not give Trower enough room to jam. One gets hints of his virtuosity on songs like 'Simple Sister' and 'Whiskey Train'. But the Harum sound is primarily keyboard driven, and Trower had to take a back seat. Not so on Trower's second solo effort, which is a masterful reinvention of the blues. The title song, Bridge of Sighs, is just such a chilling and ethereal walk along the borders of blues innovation. The shimmering percussion of Reg Isidore, the mournful baritone of bassist James Dewar and Trower's effects-drenched guitar meld into a sorrowful and brilliantly executed tone poem. Too Rolling Stoned and Little Bit of Sympathy are also notable and powerful explosions of blues variation.

Fleetwood Mac
Unbridled enthusiasm, immense talent and a deep reverence for Elmore James. What more could you ask for from a young blues rock band? Peter Green, Jeremy Spencer and Fleetwood Mac (yes, they were a great blues band before female singers started coming out of the woodwork) were raucous and rowdy, and songs like Elmore James' Shake Your Moneymaker and Spencer's Heart Beat Like a Hammer are incredibly fun. But song slections such as No Place to Go, The World Keep on Turning, and Robert Johnson's Hellhound on My Trail hint at Peter Green's own inner demons, the schizophrenia and drug addiction that would interrupt his career and cause him to fall out of music for most of the 1970s, with only sporadic releases thereafter. But in the 60s, Peter Green was awesome, as a listen to the Fleetwood Mac albums English Rose and Then Play On will attest.

Fresh Cream - Cream
One of the greatest "Supergroups" of all time, Jack Bruce, Ginger Baker and Eric Clapton (who was in just about every supergroup ever created in the 60s and 70s) exploded onto the scene in 1966 with the album Fresh Cream, which has a decidedly different take on the blues than the more traditional Paul Butterfield Blues Band or John Mayall's Bluesbreakers. Fresh Cream is heavier and obviously not homogenized. Songs like Cat's Squirrel and Muddy Water's Rolling and Tumbling are much rougher and more free form (and playing blues harp on "Rolling and Tumbling" requires a good set of lungs, I can tell you), and worked as a template for later groups like Led Zeppelin and early Jethro Tull. Add in the immortal version of Willie Dixon's Spoonful and Robert Johnson's Four Until Late, and you have the shape of things to come.

Bonnie Rait
At the time only 21 years-old, yet with the soul of an old blues picker, Bonnie Raitt's debut album is indeed soulful, with Bonnie's voice halfway between heavenly angel and hellish temptress. YouTube unfortunately has no clips of her first album, but I can give you approximations of the tunes from live recordings in the Sigma Sound Studios a few months after the original release. Of note are Finest Lovin' Man, Steven Still's bluesy acoustic number Bluebird, and Robert Johnson's Walkin' Blues (where Bonnie shows her mean slide skills). But it is on the Sippie Wallace song Women Be Wise that the young chanteuse really struts her stuff. The song became one of her trademark tunes, and the big, booming Sippie and the little redeaded Bonnie later would become fast friends, as often happens in blues circles. If you can't find Raitt's debut, then by all means pick up her second album Give it Up, which is just as damn good.

Safe as Milk - Captain Beefheart
The strangest album in the bunch, but one I prefer over the even more odd (if critically acclaimed) Capt. Beefheart album Trout Mask Replica. There is a strange bit of voodoo running through Safe as Milk, part Delta blues, part psychedelic madness, and Captain Beefheart's gravel and grit voice is reminiscent of later rusted bourbon crooners like Tom Waits, who acknowledges the Captain's influence, and which is recognizable in both the quirkiness and vocal qualities of Sure 'Nuff 'N Yes I Do and Grown So Ugly. Other space-blues material includes Plastic Factory and an avant garde ménage à trois of Robert Johnson, Bob Dylan and Ornette Coleman wrapped in a Zappaesque swaddling cloth on Electricity. All this in 1967?!?!

Boogie With Canned Heat
Of course, this album is renowned for a psychedelic blues classic, the scintillating On The Road, but this is the tip of the iceberg. Featuring guest pianist and horn arranger Dr. John, this eclectic blues album includes perhaps the only blues ballad for an ice rink Fried Hockey Boogie (and if you notice, Norman Greenbaum lifted the main riff for his hit "Spirit in the Sky"), an ode to a type of varnish cleaner/alcoholic beverage Turpentine Moan, and the dangers of speed Amphetamine Annie. No one takes themself seriously, save for seriously jamming, and a good time was had by all. The 2005 CD release also contains the Woodstock anthem Going Up the Country, so this is about the only Canned Heat album you'll ever need, because they were annoyingly inconsistent over the years.


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