How Not to Do a Tribute Album
This is, at least, an original way to pay homage to that great American named Ellas McDaniel, who is also known as Bo Diddley, and who should also be just as well-known as an architect of rock and roll as Elvis (that hero to most) or Jerry Lee (truly a wild man but not the most original apple in the barrel) or Chuck (that holy ding-a-ling) or any of ‘em. I’ve already written in PopMatters about the criminal neglect of Bo Diddley, so I shan’t reprise that except to say that his contribution to modern music was absolutely crucial and he has been written off by virtually everyone as some kind of novelty act or a noble savage but none of that is true, the man was an original genius with humor and heart and soul and his influence is everywhere and anyone who doesn’t understand that is in serious need of reeducation.
Evidence Music understands it, god bless their hearts. They wanted to put together a disc celebrating the Bo, and they went about it in a completely unusual way. First, they asked blues/rock guitarist Charlie Karp to put together a band; this quartet consists of people you never heard of except as “the bass player for the Max Weinberg Seven, y’know, from the Conan show” or “the guy who sometimes plays the drums when Max Weinberg is on the road with his other band”. This band laid down backing tracks for 15 different Bo Diddley songs, and nothing too weird: “Bo Diddley”, of course, and “I’m a Man” and “Road Runner” and “Who Do You Love” and the like, the most out-there choice being the little-heard “My Story”. Then Karp sent the tapes to producer Carla Olson (no, I never heard of her either), who invited 16 different blues people—singers, guitarists, harmonica experts, and Barry Goldberg on piano—to add their stuff on top of these tracks. This album is 58:11 of the results.
This process is a model of efficiency, and a really good example of logistical brilliance. Sadly, the songs on the actual disc are largely blanded-out residents of the no-man’s-land described by bandleader Karp in the liner notes: “My philosophy was to not annoy the purists by going too far off the track, but to make the sound new enough that a generation who didn’t necessarily know Bo Diddley could turn-on (sic) to it.” Dammit, Karp, isn’t the job of rock and roll to go too far off the track? Wasn’t Bo Diddley’s true talent exactly that: to annoy the purists?
I’ll answer my own question: Yes, it was. (Proof: Taj Mahal, quoted in the liner notes: “A lot of black people didn’t like Bo Diddley’s music back then, because he was too primitive, too country for them.” That is exactly why other black people, and like-minded people of all colors, loved his music so much, isn’t it?) So Karp’s blanded-out “just like the original” backing tracks don’t do anyone any good here, especially when the “guest artists” come in and allow these tracks to dictate their path. You’d expect venerated veteran Joe Louis Walker to try something on “Who Do You Love” than just a straight Bo Diddley impression, but nope, there he goes, sticking to his script like a pro, for the 2:50 he is allotted. (To be fair, his guitar solo is kinda great, but Olson’s production buries it in the mix.)
And it gets worse. How, exactly, can you mess up “Don’t Let It Go (Hold on to What You Got)”? Well, take lessons from Guitar Shorty, who just sounds rushed—how do you not let a guy named Guitar Shorty get a guitar solo?—and crowded out by Goldberg’s hyperactive piano sprinklings, and like he’s just trying to do that thing called “generic blues singing”, which is the main reason that everyone except the “purists” hate blues music. And why is Taj Mahal even on this comp, if he’s going to phone it in like he does on “Bo Diddley”?
To be fair, there are some great interesting performances here, stuff that, if not very original, at least sounds engaged. Charlie Musselwhite gets by far the best track on “Hey Bo Diddley”, a lean rock piece with some great crunchy guitar chords which gives his leathery voice and his harmonica stabs something to bounce off of. Son Seals does an excellent job on the aforementioned “My Story”, drawling out this hilarious story-song in his damned great Son Seals voice, and festooning the whole thing with some punkabilly guitar. And Kris Wiley, the album’s only female performer, puts some real live heart and soul into her singing on “You Don’t Love Me”, and then plays an ass-kickin’ guitar solo that is no less effective for being a Big Blues Guitar Solo.
The true standouts here are the ones that actually take a chance or two: Corey Harris’ sexy “Crackin’ Up”, which slows things down to Glacier Speed and cranks the Insinuation Factor up to the “high” setting. There’s really no messing with Sugar Blue’s harmonica work (dude did the work on “Miss You”, okay?), and he somehow manages to transcend the Karpization of “Mona” by sounding like he means it. But the good stuff is mostly buried on the second half of the disc, and by then too many great songs (“Pills”, “Ride on Josephine”, “Road Runner”) have been shrunk and/or stretched on the Procrustean Bed of a wonderful idea that just didn’t happen to work.
There’s a lesson here: if you’re afraid to annoy the purists, you’ll just annoy everyone else. And you better stay the hell away from my Bo Diddley.