Lil Ed and the Blues Imperials: Rattleshake

[19 September 2006]

By Robert R. Calder

Ed Williams is a nephew of the late J.B. Hutto, and protégé—hear the vocal attack on the opening number, and the guitar on “Golden Rule”. After a lick recognisable as from J.B’s antecedent Elmore James, the chording is Hutto, in the same sort of sharing of approach you’ll find between early blues guitarists from the same geographic locality (like Skip James and Jack Owens of Bentonia, Mississippi).

The late and loved Hutto came from Georgia, but in the 1950s picked up on the Mississippi-in-Chicago music represented by James, a Robert Johnson follower whose narrower musical range happened to match “R&B” (blues and soul, et al)  marketing priorities of the 1950s. The much superior Johnny Shines toiled outside music until the middle 1960s, while James’s blaring voice and intensity provided (not merely!) unsubtle effects which could be sold. Probably somewhat overrated in the limited context of his day, monotonous on record without responsible producer input—and James had no talent for sell-out music—his recordings differed from Johnson’s in one important respect. Their fulcrum wasn’t in the complexities of the guitar part, it was the rhythm section. The basic underlying pulses of earlier country blues had been supplanted by explicit metrical patterns.

As in cases of supposed “progress” in music, greater immediacy and intensity spelled loss of subtlety and individuality. Lil’ Ed’s earlier albums have been spoken of as performances in which separate numbers lack individuality—which could be said of swatches of Elmore James recordings. While the more rock and roll start to this new set might foster the same impression, there is a range of varied, distinctive performances here.

Dive in nearer the end and you’ll hear, not for the only occasion on this set, Alligator’s boss Johnny Iguana playing solid piano on “You Know You’re Wrong”, which is credited to Elmore James. While Iguana does some right hand chording after Little Johnny Jones on Elmore recordings, that echo brings out in relief the plain difference between Lil’ Ed and James. Instead of James’s very singular intensity, which wasn’t an unequivical musical virtue—and some people gladly admit they can have too much of it—still capable of an enormous drive, Ed opens out. It’s variety within the basic rhythm, different qualities of swing, which distinguish players within the broader traditions of Robert Johnson and Elmore James.

Homesick James began early enough that some country fiddle qualities survive in his music—except on 1950s recordings on which he was expected to sound like Elmore (for whom he played bass guitar). Hutto had some of the same, maybe from his rural background, and Ed certainly releases some of that from probably impressive reserves.

On “That’s the Truth”, it’s clear that while he sounds vocally like his uncle, that’s a matter of resemblance between two originals, each of whom sounds good sounding like himself.

Listening to this specific sub-species of blues, it’s necessary to recognise similarities as a given. Recording and performing this music, it’s necessary also to make room for differences. I suppose we can thank Michael Garrett’s rhythm guitar and the bass of James “Pookie” Young (who has a number of composer credits here) for generating a swing which on Ed’s own “It’s a Beautiful World”, the closer, has occasional reminiscences of the Mr. Charlie music of Bob Wills. I wonder what Ed could do without the rocking context, and the contemporary dance-hall repertoire which includes the occasional slow neo-C&W song like “Tramp on Your Street”, here: something to waltz or smooch to in the course of the evening. Oddly enough, the presence of organ gives more rural swing to “Spend Some Time with Me”.

There have been more thoroughly distinctive bluesmen, also bluesmen more versatile within Ed’s specific idiom, but when Ed Williams puts his everything into his music that everything includes quality, and variety of range, as well as drive and passion. He is blues live and alive and well.

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