“The Chief” and fellow Chicago blues legend Ronnie Baker Brooks have teamed up to produce a vivid album that celebrates and extends Clearwater’s living legacy.
Young lefthander Eddy Harrington arrived in the midst of the Chicago blues scene as a wide-eyed kid and soon developed into a fierce playing guitarist with emotive vocals to match. Under the influence of inexperienced emulation and adoration, Eddy changed his nickname from Guitar Eddy to Clear Waters in 1958, but later merged the moniker and applied it as a surname. Now, “The Chief” -- the enduring sobriquet a reference to the headdress he frequently flaunts during his riveting live shows -- and producer, fellow Chicago blues legend Ronnie Baker Brooks, have teamed up to produce West Side Strut, a vivid and dynamic album that celebrates and extends Clearwater’s living legacy.
Deciding to abandon the echo of Muddy Waters in name, Clearwater instead channels the late legend’s harmonica-laced blues on the album’s opening track, “A Good Leavin’ Alone”. Unlike Muddy, his sound is rounder and less industrial, but the disgruntled moans definitely elicit Waters. Overall the track is a straightforward shuffle that makes for an energized opener.
Clearwater shows off his dexterity and continues borrowing styles throughout the album. Conjuring up B.B. King on “Trouble, Trouble”, he use his guitar primarily as ornamentation around vocals and to embellish the song’s phrasing. There are also the scorching single-note solos whose harmonies bend, suspending themselves in Clearwater’s blue tableau until one’s pulse returns. The album’s title suggests otherwise, but the record’s tempo is a stroll, not a strut (also kind of B.B.-like). And again like King, the blithe beat is enhanced with a balanced horn section that neither dominates nor fades into indolent unison.
Johnny B. Goode’s seminal rock n’ roll sound -- twangy Western guitars let loose over charging Southern blues riffs -- are summoned on “Too Old to Get Married”, a lively tune about staying youthful and feeling good. Horns, arranged by Steve Herrman, also add an extra bit of flare to the juvenile romp.
Clearwater and Brooks sound more like Delta bluesmen at one point. The rustic sounds they create on “Came Up the Hard Way” turn bright after a bout of “gut-bucket” blues. Though the vibe is casual throughout, their acoustic guitars have a bright clear sound that come through as professionally as B.B.’s tux. Also playing as if shredding their finest Guitar Hero axes, their solos are unrestrained and dramatic, injecting life into an otherwise laid back low-key jam.
I am obliged to comment on Clearwater’s vocals too. First off, they’re velvety. Clearwater delivers them with an intonational assurance and rusty nonchalance that laces each track with an affable and clear sound. Second, they’re dynamic. Clearwater’s voice oozes with heartache and lust, emoting the hardships of life and love (“Gotta Move On”), seethes with resentment (“A Good Leavin’ Alone”), or preaches with inspiration (“A Time for Peace”). It may not be the attraction, but its contribution cannot go unrecognized.
“They Call Me the Chief” would have to be considered Clearwater’s theme song. After a half-decade, it’s more surprising that he doesn’t have one yet. The Native American drum and percussion are unmistakable, and make for a very interesting and textured background, but as a whole this electric pow-wow manages to rock pretty well. If one listens closely, the textured sleigh bells and tambourine show up, unannounced, on a number of other tracks as well.
The visual panache of Eddy “The Chief” Clearwater’s headdress is matched only by the ferocity of his guitar, his energy, and depth. West Side Strut, which might be his strongest and most complete record yet, is a blues album that surprises the listener with both its sentimentality and range. However predictable Clearwater’s retro sound, it’s so because it is a timeless one that spans genres and decades, and the Chief’s continuing contributions to the blues are a testament to that legacy.