The (R)evolution Continues with ‘Chicago Blues: A Living History’

There is a whiff of the museum in Chicago Blues: A Living History, but that passes quickly when you realize you’re just listening to a terrific bunch of songs.

Various Artists
Chicago Blues: A Living History: The (R)evolution Continues
Red General Catalog
21 June 2011

Chicago Blues: A Living History attempts to assess the blues in the context of a greater musical milieu as well as ensure that the music itself does not grow obsolete. There’s little more depressing than music which has ceased being vibrant and vital to those who hear it, which has passed into the musty halls of academic “ethnomusicology”. While such study might prevent a song or tune or particular style of playing from disappearing altogether, the fact remains that musical forms are only as vital to the extent that they have an audience eager to hear them.

The (R)evolution Continues is the second in the Living History series, a two-disc set that matches the 2009 original’s format of finding contemporary blues stalwarts to perform classic tunes from the 1940s through the 1990s. Almost inevitably, there is a sense of self-consciousness to the project, a whiff of the museum, so to speak, but that sense passes quickly, and midway through the first record, you realize you’re just listening to a terrific bunch of songs.

The first four tunes date from the 1940s, with Sonnyboy Williamson’s uptempo “She Don’t Love Me That Way” providing an early highlight. Billy Boy Arnold’s vocals and harmonica are outstanding here, ably supported by Johnny Iguana’s joyous piano work. Muddy Waters’s mournful, deep-blues “Canary Bird” is another standout, benefiting from the heartfelt vocals of John Primer. “Rocket 88” sports a dizzying back-and-forth harp duet — or is it duel? — between James Cotton and Billy Branch. Most of disc one’s tracks feature Kenny Smith on drums and Felton Smith on bass, and the two of them provide a rock-solid foundation for the other musicians.

It’s the second disc that really shines, though. This is clear right off the bat, when Buddy Guy takes the stage to play and sing Eurreal Montgomery’s “First Time I Met the Blues.” Guy is in fine voice — no surprise there — and his flashing fretwork belies the fact that this song, written in 1960, is older than many of the people listening to the disc.

From there, the train just keeps a-rollin’, and if none of the performances can be said to outshine Guy’s, well, few of them fall far short either. Magic Slim delivers Chuck Willis’s 1958 stomper “Keep A-Drivin'” with conviction and force while Zora Young’s sly vocal adds a light element to “Be Careful How You Vote”, a 1980 tune penned by Sunnyland Slim. Young’s presence is bittersweet; she’s the only female musician on the entire record, and it’s tough to believe there aren’t more women worth representing.

Billy Branch’s righteous harmonica elevates “Got to Leave Chi-Town”, a 1982 tune written by Lurrie Bell, who also sings it here. Good tunes are plentiful, but maybe the most satisfying of the whole set is the seven-minute rendition of “Make These Blues Survive”, originally written by Ronnie Baker Brooks in 1998 and here sung by the committee of Billy Boy Arnold, John Primer, Billy Branch, and Lurrie Bell. Branch and Matthew Skoller chip in with harp solos, and Billy Flynn adds some scathing guitar.

The song seems to summarize what the whole project is about, yet it confirms the essential joy of the blues without resorting to hand-wringing about What the Kids Are Listening To These Days. A quick rendition of “The Blues Had a Baby (and They Named It Rock and Roll)” to close the set seems almost like an afterthought.

This is a celebration of the kind of lively, plugged-in blues that made Chicago famous. As a primer for anyone interested in the material, it makes a great start. Fans of the genre will appreciate it as a solid contribution to their musical libraries. Apart from the dearth of female talent on display here, the album is an apt summation of the state of the music at the moment.

RATING 7 / 10