“When he break a string, it deserved being broke.”
— Koko Taylor on Luther Allison’s guitar playing
On July 4, 1997, Luther Allison performed an electric set at the Montreal Jazz Festival. The companion DVD of the concert, captured as Songs from the Road, could lead people just discovering his music to believe they are watching Allison at his best. But for those lucky enough to have seen him live, the performance was pretty a given.
Four days after this performance, Allison was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer. A month later he was dead. His loss was one of the most shocking losses in modern blues. Listening to the CD, it’s apparent that his illness had not the least bit affected the power of his vocals, especially on tracks like “Living in the House of Blues” and “There Comes A Time”. His guitar playing was still in the same league as Buddy Guy and Stevie Ray Vaughn. Watching the DVD, you see his face already drenched in sweat by the second song, but not looking the least bit fatigued.
Though he attained greater fame in Europe than in the United States, Allison was one of the few blues artists who could transcend the genre. A heavy metal fan could marvel at Allison’s incendiary guitar solos. A folk artist could fall in love with his songwriting, a mix of conversational informality and no-nonsense confessionals. And any fan of a great live set could be assured Allison would deliver at least double the door charge or the festival admission fee.
As a live album, Songs From The Road has a lean ten tracks. But Allison’s guitar solos, along with his band’s mind-song jams, push some tracks past ten minutes — trademark for an artist known for pushing concerts to the three-hour threshold and beyond. The majority of the material comes from his 1990s output, when he came back to the United States after living in Paris for almost 15 years.
The albums that Allison recorded in the ’90s on Ruf Records were among his best. But Allison’s greatness was truly experienced during his live performances. As a result, his best albums remain his live ones. Songs from the Road is a notch below his excellent double-live Live in Chicago and the indispensible 1979 release Live in Paris. It’s not that Songs From the Road is an inferior live album in itself, it’s just that it’s competing against two classic live albums in his catalog.
Along with the live recording of Allison’s performance at the Montreal Jazz Festival, the DVD release also includes a brief documentary on Allison, as well as a lengthy interview. The documentary and interview show Allison speaking about the blues and even his brand (he often refers to himself in the third person) with as much passion as he exerted on stage.
Whether on CD or DVD, Songs from the Road is a remarkable document of one of Allison’s last performances. The concert wasn’t a cultural event, like the Monterey Pop Festival of 1967. It was Luther Allison doing what he did best. And for any fan of Allison or blues in general, this should be reason enough to check the release out.