Little Howlin’ Wolf: Cool Truth and the Guardian

Virtually defying classification, the music of Little Howlin’ Wolf is an out-there collection of sounds and styles, all emanating from a single, swirling mind.
Little Howlin’ Wolf
Family Vineyard

How does one even begin to describe the music of Chicago street musician James Pobiega, aka Little Howlin’ Wolf? While his moniker offers hints as to his music’s origins, nothing prepares listeners for the cacophony contained within these two reissues from Family Vineyard. Full of random percussion, tone-less bass, obscured drones, simmering guitars, and barely recognizable, often unintelligible vocalizations, this is far from easy listening. Sounding as though multiple songs are being played simultaneously, often in different styles, it’s a heady mix of sounds that refuse easy classification. Unlike the works of Moondog or even Wesley Willis whose output, while certainly idiosyncratic bordering on the esoteric, at least held certain steadfast reference points, the music of Little Howlin’ Wolf is such a swirling olio it defies rote genre classification and easy cataloging.

Instead, much of the material recorded here plays as an uncompromising miasma of sounds and styles, each sounding at odds with the next yet somehow intermittently complimentary. Wandering, a-melodic figures performed on a seemingly endless parade of instruments –some recognizable, some not – butt up against rubbery bass and clattering percussion. “Rendezvous”, from Cool Truth, by far the more difficult and thus compelling of the two reissues, takes its title in the most literal sense, sounding like a meeting of disparate styles and performances sharing only the faintest of tonal similarities.

As with the rest of these tracks, the listener is dropped seemingly into the middle of a performance and just as quickly extracted. There are no clear beginnings or endings present anywhere on the album and no contextualization or easy reference points to help serve as a guide. Instead, it’s best approached from more of an experiential standpoint than one based in any sort of recognizable form or structure; this is creative musical expression in its purest, most undiluted form.

Far from an easy listen, even for those accustomed to outsider artists and the more extreme ends of the avant garde spectrum, the appeal lies in the sheer ambition on display. Not content to explore any sort of traditional song structure or commonly understood notions of composition, Pobiega’s music takes on a free-form, almost organic quality that goes beyond mere improvisation into a sort of external projection of the inner workings of a mind overflowing with ideas. More often than not, especially on Cool Truth, the result sounds more like a stroll through the practice halls of some rudimentary school of music: dozens of different styles co-mingling, only a handful coming through with any sort of defined clarity.

While the blues is certainly meant to be the basis for much of Little Howlin’ Wolf’s recorded output, he rarely explicitly explores the style. “Ten Steps to a Broken Heart” is one of only a handful of pieces in which he does run through what could be considered a traditional blues structure. Sounding more than a little like latter-day Tom Waits, here Pobiega’s throaty growl comes through for the first time. Where before it was drowned in a swirling sea of seemingly random instrumentation, here it sits coolly and defiantly atop a battered acoustic and complimentary, surprisingly soulful horn lines. It’s by far one of Cool Truth’s most accessible moments and offers a glimpse into what a more traditionally-minded set of recordings from Pobiega under the Little Howlin’ Wolf guise might sound like.

Not content to stick with one instrument as his primary form of expression, Pobiega explores a host of instruments ranging from the guitar to assorted percussion instruments to horns. On “Soul Magrib”, he tackles a soulful, bluesy form of jazz that finds him wailing away on the horn like a remedial Ben Webster or more frenetic-bordering-on-spastic Louis Jordan. Were it not for the sheer passion and occasionally recognizable figures he periodically deploys, “Soul Magrib” would be little more than a mess of barely competent competing performances dead set on outplaying the other.

More traditionally structured and struck through with atonal blues moans, The Guardian represents a different, more stripped-down side of Pobiega. Here his throaty, phlegmatic growl is accompanied by little more than a strident guitar, harmonica and makeshift percussion. Of the two, The Guardian is by far the more blues-indebted and, in the process, more accessible of the two. But after hearing the aural chaos that makes up Cool Truth, it can’t help but feel a bit of a letdown. Where that album features such a strange assortment of sounds and loosely-defined arrangements, The Guardian’s stripped-down approach plays more like an amateur Tom Waits impressionist steeped in the blues.

But dismissing the work here would be a disservice to Pobiega and the Little Howlin’ Wolf legacy as it clearly represents the more restrained, introspective side of the performer. Cool Truth is pure emotional chaos and unbridled creative output while The Guardian shows an artist capable of understated restraint, one who doesn’t have to rely on an overabundance of sound to get his message across. The sparest of these, “As I Cry”, finds Pobiega relying on nothing more than a mournful guitar progression and his bullfrog croak. It’s a highly affecting approach that stands in sharp contrast to his more out-there explorations (see the incongruity of “Get Down” and its mud-funk morasses that immediately follows “As I Cry’s” delicacy).

Ultimately, these recordings represent a sort of fractured, contemporary urban folk music. Borrowing from a host of stylistic traditions, Pobiega creates an unsettling amalgamation, an aural melting pop of sorts, that distills the disparate genres to their basest elements to create something distinctly American. It’s not always pretty or even fun to listen to, but it possesses an inherent realness and sense of genuine creativity solely for creativity’s sake that it can be hard not to at least admire the efforts of one man looking to unleash the sounds inside his head.

RATING 7 / 10