Elvin Bishop: The Best of Elvin Bishop: 20th Century Masters, The Millennium Collection

Barbara Flaska

Elvin Bishop

The Best of Elvin Bishop: 20th Century Masters, the Millennium Collection

Label: Mercury
US Release Date: 2002-01-15

Elvin Bishop is one of the best, famous for pouring upbeat and happy music out of the blues. This "Best Of" in all fairness to the consumer should rightly be labeled "Somebody's Idea of the Best of Elvin's Capricorn Years". His music is there, spreading through 11 tracks, and there's no denying his immensely creative song writing, playing, and arranging. His hits that made it to radio (and hopefully allowed him to collect a bunch of lettuce) are here, and all of these are his original compositions, unlike his other Best Ofs.

Unfortunately, in trying to provide an historic window into an artist's work, the compilers succeeded perhaps too well, because all of this taken of a piece ends up sounding strangely dated. And it's not even true to sound of the original form, because despite the digital re-mastering, the music is mixed out too high on the treble, almost all of the songs collected are in the same key, and the overall rhythmic feel of the album is frantic. All of which combined make this record hard to listen to all the way through at one sitting, and that's a damn shame. There's also a greater disservice levied on the artist and his time period. I'd hate to think of a younger listener picking this one up as an introduction to Elvin Bishop and wondering what was so great about this guy.

Bishop's songwriting and catchy arrangements are strong enough on their own to still glitter even in this re-engineered mess. As this material was all drawn from the overdone supergroup era, when everyone's friend and label mate stopped into the studio as guests, it is hard to distill out who precisely was doing what on each track, despite the lengthy list of credits for each song. Bishop usually had an active hand in his arrangements, no matter who was producing, and to have a hint of Bishop's talent as bandmaster, listen "Ground Hog". The rhythm guitar parts plucked out from strings fretted close to the f-holes lead in to create a high-spirited mood, and combine beautifully with a sweeping series notes from the lead guitar, the individual notes of two guitars trading back and forth in a flurry.

"Sugar Dumplin'" is mighty good here, too, the lead-in just sparkles, and that if you haven't already guessed is one of Bishop's trademarks. The strut arrangement fills out with the Tower of Power horn section providing some fat Louisiana-sounding horn parts and a humorous tuba line bubbles underneath. Is that a synth, a tuned down electric bass, or a genuine plastic tuba, only Bishop knows for sure, but the lines that instrument follows could only have been created by Bishop himself.

All this is a good example of trying for the bubbling, joyous New Orleans rhythm lines that were becoming au currant during the early and mid-'70s, after the Meters were flown in from Louisiana to perform for the major record company crowds. The Meters flew back home without any sort of contract, but elements of their sound remained behind.

That this material sounds dated now is merely because this styling became the preferred sound du jour for major record companies, and the public was exposed to a plethora of badly done second-line syncopation that made it to overplayed status on radio waves everywhere. Memo to the future: That's not Bishop's fault.

What I'm trying to say here, Elvin Bishop is genuinely one of the best, but this compilation does not reflect his best, nor even the best of his Capricorn years. Next time, maybe ask the artist to participate in the compiling and re-engineering process, because he's got the ear for his own music.

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