[15 May 2006]
Why the term “punk” in this CD’s paperwork? Some sort of selling point? Funny things are done with some vocals, using odd effects to simulate things which happened to John Lee Hooker’s voice on those earliest recordings that were his real achievements: as on the King label album, recorded on amateur equipment in a record shop’s back room. Hillstomp dosen’t produce the amazing sound of a customer opening the door and coming in off the street (you can hear the traffic as the door opens, and the guy asking a question, and the traffic again as he goes out!) but there is distortion of the voice. No matter.
The guitarist here, Henry Kammerer, knows his Hooker, also his Fred McDowell, and sounds as if he’d known both and been sufficiently musical to learn from both and show musical family resemblances to both, and to some obscure early 1950s performers whose music occasionally surfaces when a tiny Memphis or other southern label’s archives are transferred to CD. The third track on this set, “I Can’t Be Satisfied”, is very remarkable as a performance of a Muddy Waters number wholly idiomatic and like something by a contemporary of Muddy’s without the least effort at imitation.
It’s actually very interesting, thinking of guitarists who had things in common with each of these distinctive bluesmen. Hooker had long since gone north and was much recorded before McDowell was recorded in the field, and a blues singer gone slightly to seed and featured in the R&B charts with mediocre stuff before the much more accomplished guitarist McDowell was rediscovered, recorded on his own, and taken on European tours from where he’d been an agricultural worker. McDowell was never a virtuoso guitarist, and I’d suppose he had to be encouraged to avoid repetitions when he recorded. The one time I saw him live he tended to fall back on the same devices, but he didn’t look well, and I gather it was cancer that killed him soon after. At least he was sober enough to play, unlike Hooker the time I attended the blues package concert from which he was absent—and not in the least missed, given that there were too many performers there anyway.
Hooker was the crudest of guitarists, with the ever-amazing voice and the handful of accompaniments he’d worked out, which relied often on making the noises trained guitarists learned to avoid. What’s really notable here is that while the opening guitar notes are pure Hookerisms, there is a seamless extension into McDowell, and that is not only astonishing, it’s extremely musical. I have heard good things of Portland, Oregon, and here are several more good things apparently from there.
For a minute I was going to say simply that “In the Hole” was more a singer-songwriter number than anything else, but really the vocal is more in songster style; John Hurt maybe. Philip Guttman plays harmonica. On “Shake It”, David Lipkind plays a lot of harmonica and Lewi Longmire plays Hammond B3 as the harmonica’s big brother. A reasonable stomp. It could be Kammerer or the percussionist John Johnson (who together comprise Hillstomp) on “Jackson Parole Board Blues” with the poppier vocal and less varied guitar part, but we are back with Fred McDowell and one of his tunes to follow, and after that aggressive drums and the original Hooker boogie theme again. The radiant monotony explodes in some slide work at the end. The guitar on “North East Portland 3 AM” is doing things to the hair at the back of my neck, and this has not happened with any new blues recordings in rather a long time. It’s stunning, and “Deep Knee Blues” is presumably what the blurb I shall shortly quote is referring to with its mention of Appalachian. Actually, it’s not that different from more songster and very, very early or almost pre-blues material. The closer, a second “Coal Black Mattie”, is Hooker-McDowell in the nearest approach of each to Charlie Patton. Did I just mention a blurb? Here’s a fragment of it:
On The Woman That Ended the World, North Mississippi trance blues, a bit of Appalachia and a dash of punkabilly are duct-taped together into a rockin’ do-it-yourself hill country blues stomp. This sweet racket comes clanging and tumbling from assorted vintage mics, buckets, cans and BBQ lids, drenched in rambunctious slide guitar.
Frankly, sirs, I don’t give a ducked ape, drenched in Mississippi water or rambunctious slide guitar. Quite why Hillstomp’s website declares this stuff to be different from what the hypothetical uncle of a hypothetical customer listens to I do not know. Ifn uncle don’t like Kammerer’s guitar and Johnson’s percussion, he do not like blues and cannot be imagined listening to same!
Or have I just blown the gaff and destroyed this disc’s sales prospects by revealing that it is very good indeed?