It’s been 45 years since Hound Dog Taylor & The Houserockers entered a Chicago recording studio to cut the album that would change the face of American music forever. That self-titled release came out in August 1971 and launched an American institution, Alligator Records. Label boss Bruce Iglauer ran the operation from an efficiency apartment in the Windy City. In the subsequent decades, his imprint would issue roughly 300 titles, including releases from Koko Taylor, Albert Collins, Luther Allison, and Lil’ Ed and The Blues Imperials, among many, many others. When quality blues records were hard to come by and majors turned their attention to the latest fashions, Iglauer stuck it out, giving a loyal fan base music they didn’t know they were missing. To see the Alligator logo on an album’s spine meant you were getting something handpicked from a friend who loved that music as much as you did. Maybe even more.
Among its many charms is the fact that Alligator has never been about looking back. As blues music has changed over the decades, so too has Iglauer’s roster. He hasn’t lost sight of where the music came from, but he’s not afraid of where it’s going, either. That’s evident on this two-disc set, which focuses its attention on the current roster and several acts that represent Alligator’s still-bright future. For instance, Toronzo Cannon and Tommy Castro are known quantities to purists and offer them everything they’d hope for in the blues, while Moreland & Arbuckle and JJ Grey & Mofro added contemporary touches that sometimes step outside that genre’s strict boundaries. Yet both appeal to an audience that also loves Johnny Winter, Roomful of Blues, and Mavis Staples.
Charlie Musselwhite stuns and astounds with “The Well”, Lee Rocker sounds classic and fresh via “Crazy When She Drinks”, Selwyn Birchwood gives us a new favorite (“Don’t Call No Ambulance”), and “Cotton Picking Blues” affirms Son Seals’ reputation as one of the greatest artists to ever channel this most American music. In case you’d forgotten how amazing Jimmy Johnson and Delbert McClinton are, there’s “Your Turn to Cry” and “Givin’ It Up for Your Love” to remind you. Lest we forget the “glorious racket” and “vibrant, rocking spirit” of Hound Dog Taylor, “Take Five” will jar those memories back to the frontal lobes.
The omnipresent Joe Bonamassa guests on James Cotton’s “Cotton Mouth Man” and Albert Collins’ “If Trouble Was Money” (never wastes a second of its eight minutes).The Kentucky Headhunters join forces with Johnnie Johnson for “Stumblin’”, and Smokin’ Joe Kubek & Bnois King give us “Freezer Burn”. Bonnie Raitt, a true champion of this music and its artists, can be heard on A.C. Reed’s “She’s Fine”, while The Holmes Brothers take us home via “Amazing Grace”.
The pacing of this set leaves the listener breathless, but even after more than 30 tracks you can’t help but feel that you want to start all over again. True, some will notice the absence of a favorite track here or there, but this isn’t about completeness as much as it’s about demonstrating vitality. Alligator, it turns out, has had more vitality in its forty-five years than many labels have at fifty or fifty-five.
(As you’d expect, excellent linear notes round out the package.)