This Is The Blues
Volume 1 & 2

Various Artists

This Is The Blues, a new series of CDs from Eagle Rock Entertainment, has a title that I found slightly misleading. Not that the music can't be considered "blues". It most certainly is that. Down-on-your-luck laments abound. Guitar strings bend almost to the point of breaking. Sexual metaphors, subtle and not-so-subtle, are tossed about without a second thought as to whether someone might find them offensive. That's definitely the “blues" and describes the biggest chunk of the first two volumes in what will become a four-volume set.

For some reason I was expecting a more comprehensive overview of the genre. Maybe I misunderstood. This Is The Blues would ideally, correct me if I'm wrong, feature the legends of the genre. Performances by Robert Johnson, Charley Patton, Bessie Smith, Son House...wouldn't they be essential to any comprehensive overview? Not to mention Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Blake, Blind Boy Fuller, Blind Joe Reynolds & Blind Willie Johnson. Now that's the “blues” — am I wrong? Songs by Muddy Waters and Leadbelly. B.B. King with Lucille. Maybe a couple of jaw-dropping performances by Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page, who, in their own respective ways, stretched the whole musical idea of the blues to breaking point. And what collection with the nerve to call itself This Is The Blues would dare not feature at least one track by the man who almost single-handedly put straight-up blues back on the map: the late, great Stevie Ray Vaughn?

No doubt publishing rights are the culprit in why Eagle Rock's selection doesn't meet those admittedly high (impossible?) standards. They probably also have a lot to do with why Peter Green, troubled co-founder of Fleetwood Mac, has writing credits for no less than 13 of the thirty songs on these initial volumes. John Lee Hooker comes in second, with a relatively measly five. I can understand the difficulty in procuring material, but my mind remains boggled at the relative overabundance of Green tunes.

And so, without the wherewithal and, I assume, inclination to offer a blues anthology, the producers of This Is The Blues have chosen to refer to the series as a "tribute" to the blues. A "musical collective interpreting some of the greatest blues and blues-rock tunes of all time," it says. I can dig that. Even if I don't recognize a good portion of the collective, that's OK. I know a few of 'em, and I've heard of a few of 'em, so listening to these discs should be a good primer for me, right?

The ones I can peg down are heavy hitters, even if only to the long-time classic rock devotee. I doubt the guy who listens to the local classic rock station on his way to and from work has ever heard of any of these players. The exception being a HUGE one, Mick Jagger, who adds a harmonica part to his brother Chris' contribution, "Racketeer Blues". A Lonnie Johnson standard, the song lends itself well to this particular arrangement. Still, there is nothing about Jagger's harp blowing that sets it apart from any other moderately talented harmonica player's skills. If not for liner notes, it is almost guaranteed that nobody, even Mick's biggest fan, is going to know it's him tooting in the background.

Mick Taylor turns in a tortuously long rendition of Willie Dixon's "You Shook Me." Taylor, who played lead guitar for the Rolling Stones through the late 60s and early 70s, made his mark with that band but has continued, in a less public way, to build for himself a reputation as a premiere bluesman. His work on this tune isn't bad. Then again, he is a consistent, top-notch guitarist who has rarely released a substandard recording. But this sucker clocks in at almost 11 MINUTES! That's about seven more minutes than this particular version deserves (maybe eight-and-a-half). It seems to try a few times to pick up some steam, but never quite builds enough to reward the time invested. Still, to those of us who know his playing primarily from his stint with the Stones, it is very interesting to hear him in this element. His vocals have a nice sloppiness that is in marked contrast to the other version of "You Shook Me" that everyone knows. Led Zeppelin shot it with sexual energy and Robert Plant sounded like he was up for some more then and there. Taylor sounds like the experience wrecked him and it's gonna be a long recovery.

Another track on the first volume of This Is The Blues that's saved by a vocal performance is "I'm In The Mood." Hanging on to the microphone, sounding like a rough night spent with Jim B. and Jack D., Jack Bruce doesn't so much sing the lyrics as growl them in a lecherous, slightly creepy manner. He sounds like he's channeling one of the pioneers of the pre-war blues era. Of all the songs on this album, "I'm In The Mood" best captures what I personally think of as the blues. It's sloppy. It's dirty. For this session, Gary Moore, one of the most well-respected blues axe-men currently on the scene, has been paired with Bruce and drummer Gary Husband to fill out the trio. He does an admirable job. Neither of them quite have what it takes to conjure memories of Bruce's partners in Cream (Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker), but it is a solid combination nonetheless.

That kid who is still discovering the treasure chest of classic rock has probably not dug deep enough discover Jeff Beck (or Peter Green-era Fleetwood Mac, for that matter). But it's only a matter of time before he will, and when that day comes, he will rejoice. Old timers, such as myself, have long wondered how Beck can have released so much quality music and wielded such considerable guitar skills and yet still be virtually ignored by classic rock radio programmers. Well, I suppose there is the take on "People Get Ready" he did with Rod Stewart in the mid-80s, but that one hardly ever sees the light of day. "Hobo Blues" won't win him any new fans, but it definitely is worth hearing, especially if you've followed the man's career over the last 35+ years. His playing is restrained throughout most of the song, which only makes it more exciting when he lets loose for a teasing bar or two.

Not quite as well known as Beck, the late Rory Gallagher is in fine form opening the second volume of This Is The Blues with Peter Green's "Leaving Town Blues" (did I mention that there are 13 Peter Green compositions on this collection? Oh, I did? What the hell is that all about?). The majority of the songs on the compilation seem like platforms for electric guitar solos, but Gallagher makes the mandolin the most prominent instrument in this re-working, and employs a lap steel instead of the Fender Stratocaster that seems to dominate the rest of the album. It's a refreshing change and ranks with the Bruce, Moore and Husband song as one of the best here.

John Lee Hooker is one of only two composers on This Is The Blues to claim both writing and performing credits. The other is...uh...three guesses? That's right — Peter Green, who is given the honor of covering the great Robert Johnson's "Traveling Riverside Blues" with Nigel Watson. A subdued affair that will never be confused with the original, nevertheless it is one of the album's more soulful efforts. Hooker's "Red House" will certainly never be confused with the original, either. He plays the Hendrix classic straight and is probably the biggest name in blues working within "the collective" (okay...maybe Peter Green is just as big, I just don't know...).

There are a few other recognizable names...and I feel as if I should point out at this time that when I say "recognizable" I mean it in an entirely relative way. I won't pretend that I've heard of every one (or even most) of the names printed in the CD booklets. I'm not a blues enthusiast, as you might have guessed by my relative unfamiliarity with Peter Green's influence. I like it enough, and have played it enough in bar bands over the last few decades, that I feel qualified in writing about it. I have a good idea of the difference between the good and the bad, as it pertains to this style of music. But I have not kept up with it, and as a result I am, in many ways, like that kid driving to work with the old folks' music on the radio. Except with me, it's a blues station and might as well have been programmed by a close relative of Peter Green's.

It's an interesting mix. Some of the unfamiliar artists make me want to go deeper into the genre (T.S. McPhee, Larry Mitchell), while others make me want to change the channel (Zakiya Hooker, Harvey Mandel). But the essence is there, and I certainly recognize IT. I appreciate the variety offered and the obvious respect the compilers had for the material (especially Peter Green's). I look forward to exploring the catalogs of more than a few players I've heard for the first time on these records, and I think a lot of you will feel the same way.

Earlier in this review I said this first set of discs in the This Is The Blues series would make a good primer for me to become familiar with the newer artists featured here. Having listened to the music several times since first receiving it, I would have to say that it has been just that. I think it will work both ways, though. Newcomers to the genre itself will find copious examples of what makes the blues such a special form of musical expression (including, but not limited to, the work of Peter Green). Hopefully Volumes 3 and 4 will continue in the same vein, introducing a new generation to the masters of a timeless tradition. Oh, and at the risk of sounding redundant, you are gonna LOVE these albums if you're already a fan of...THE BLUES!!! (Betcha thought I was gonna say Peter Green, didn't ya?)

~ Jimmy Casey

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