A decade or so ago, when record companies made a lot of CDs and CDs made a lot of money, tribute albums were almost ubiquitous. Some were stellar — like the Bob Dylan-curated paean to Jimmie Rodgers; others forgettable — like the Carole King tribute Tapestry Revisited; and some, a little bit of both — Encomium, the mid-’90s alt-rock homage to Led Zeppelin, for instance. The most affectionate tribute albums, like Sweet Relief volumes I and II, which honored Victoria Williams and Vic Chesnutt, respectively, use the considerable reputations of their participants to draw attention to the less visible, but no-less worthy, talents of the subject.
Using this formula, it would be difficult to imagine a more deserving candidate than Doug Sahm. Although Sahm has received some attention recently with Hip-O Select’s elegantly comprehensive Doug Sahm and the Sir Douglas Quintet (The Complete Mercury Recordings) and Collector’s Choice’s reprints of early ’70s solo albums like Doug Sahm and Band and Groover’s Paradise, he remains a cloudy figure for many listeners. With its enthusiastic, loving performances, Keep Your Soul goes considerable distance to correcting this injustice.
Sahm’s vision, which coupled the tangled roots of rock ‘n’ roll with the rhythms and spirit of Tex-Mex, is both broad enough to facilitate the tributes of a diverse range of artists, and specific enough to make it all hang together. The gulf between Flaco Jimenez and Delbert McClinton might not seem too great, but even when they share a room, as they do on Keep Your Soul, each holds a unique position there. Because Sham, in his different configurations, anticipated — and quite honestly created — the template that many of these artists depend on, their presence here is natural, even obvious. But, in some sense, obvious is another way to say appropriate, and each performer seems at ease with both the songs and with the palpable vibe that is so unique to Sahm’s oeuvre.
Keep Your Soul predictably opens with a noisy take on the Sir Douglas Quintet’s signature “She’s About a Mover” by Little Willie G. It’s a performance that gratefully honors the song’s inimitable drive with greasy precision. Los Lobos find a deep pocket with horns and swelling organ on “It Didn’t Even Bring Me Down”, and Greg Dulli reveals the sly country menace of “You Was for Real.” Dave Alvin brings the boogie with a raucous version of “Dynamite Woman” that makes full use of the interplay between a drum kit and a Jew’s harp. What these different performances effectively do — and there’s no real bummer in the lot — is underline the deep colors that were always already embedded in Sahm’s songs.
Understandably, in the economy of tribute albums, the most reverent cuts are rarely the most interesting: Keep Your Soul bucks this trend with its final track, a take on “Mendocino” that pairs Shawn Sahm with his father’s long-time sideman Augie Meyers and his famous Vox Continental organ. Shawn inherited a generous portion of his father’s husky yawp, and we should be grateful it survives.
As a tribute album, this set does the intended work of sending us back to the original recordings with fresh ears — and that may well be the best possible measure of its success. And the best I can do is echo the message of Keep Your Soul: Listen to Doug Sahm.