A historical artefact, a listening joy and a blues tour de force.
David Quantick 2011-09-05
The blues is both the foundation and the enemy of all rock music’s creativity. Foundation, because without it we’d be listening to nothing but ABBA and Cliff Richard, or any music which has had its blackness pumped out of it. Without the blues, there would be no rock’n’roll, no rock, no soul or indeed any music – even Kraftwerk – of worth made outside of the classical canon in the last 100 years. But it’s also something that’s often best avoided, as any 1970s music fan who’s endured hours of plodding 12-bar solos, lyrics about how "mah woman done let me down", or similar blues clichés can attest. The blues is easy to play, but hard to play well.
Fortunately, the record under discussion here is a brilliant and inventive foundation stone of blues. Junior Wells, Chicago blues vocalist and harmonica player, had been around for a while before producer Bob Koester decided to record him for the Delmark label in 1965. In his sleevenotes, Koester states he had no idea that this would be the first time a working Chicago blues band was given the full run of a studio, with no time limits or singles planned. With the presence of Buddy Guy – renamed for contractual reasons as ‘Friendly Chap’ – on guitar, the session was set up to be as powerful as possible.
Wells’ style is at once laidback and forceful. On songs like Snatch It Back and Hold It and a louche Hound Dog, he is relaxed but not messing about. On Good Morning Schoolgirl, a staple of the 1960s British blues scenes, he’s a danger to shipping, never mind young women. And when he plays the harmonica – sometimes smoothly, sometimes like it’s an airbed being punished – Wells is more like Jimi Hendrix than Stevie Wonder. The band are similarly deceptively casual and enormously powerful – an effect enhanced by Guy’s guitar, which was for emergency reasons often played through a Leslie organ speaker (making it sound, unsurprisingly, rather Beatles-y for a blues guitar).
And the results are timeless. Regularly voted amongst the best blues album of all time by virtually everyone since its release, Hoodoo Man Blues – here with a lovely remaster, alternate takes and "studio chatter" – is a historical artefact, a listening joy and a blues tour de force.