Various Artists: Avalon Blues: A Tribute to the Music of Mississippi John Hurt
Tribute records trade on our respect for the artists they supposedly pay tribute to, and bet that we'll pay good money for an album of lame covers recorded for next to nothing by crappy bands, simply because they are lame covers of an artist we love. If the tribute artist happens to be some undervalued saint like Gram Parsons or Nick Drake, so much the better. Just the fact that someone is finally recognizing the genius of Obscuro Mac-Cult-Hero (whose lack of recognition we take personally as the image of our own unrecognized genius) makes the tribute album a tribute to us, to our good taste, to everything we shoulda-coulda-been. The real tribute does not happen on the albums themselves (which should mostly be re-titled "An Insult to . . .") but across the counter in the form of the money we pay for these redundant pieces of crap.
Avalon Blues: A Tribute To The Music of Mississippi John Hurt mixes artists from the old-fart alt-country and old fart never-sold-any-records-so-must-have-integrity scenes (Steve Earle, John Hiatt) with some semi-cool young bucks like Ben Harper and Alvin Youngblood Hart. The idea is apparently to broaden Mississippi John Hurt's appeal to hip MOR and college rock consumers. This is not a bad idea in principle, and this review is not the tirade of a purist who wants to keep the real folk blues sealed in sanctified obscurity. I wish Mississippi John Hurt, Willie McTell, Charlie Patton, and Willie Johnson were the foundations of everyone's CD collection, as they are certainly the foundations of American music. But Mississippi John Hurt doesn't need Beck to make him hip, and the versions on this album will persuade no one to listen to Mississippi John Hurt, because they are mostly so deeply and dully inferior to the originals.
The main problem is that the artists featured here, although not crappy, do not have the class to play on a tribute album to an artist like Mississippi John Hurt. To be a genuine tribute to one of the fathers of American music, Vanguard should have chosen only major A-list successors like Johnny Cash, Neil Young, Al Green, Van Morrison, Bob Dylan, etc. With the exception of Beck, however, the artists on Avalon Blues are C list or worse, and for the most part they are completely out of their depth. Featuring Ben Harper, for example, on A Tribute to Mississippi John Hurt, is like featuring Kenny G on A Tribute to John Coltrane.
Mississippi John Hurt's music is bare essence. His playing and singing are as smoothly blended, glittering and ungraspable as light sparkling in a river. Nothing is missing from his music and there is nothing to add to it. The most successful versions on this tribute album are those that approach the material in this spirit, humbly, and without any decorative or interpretive agendas. John Hiatt's version of "I'm Satisfied", Lucinda Williams's take on "The Angels Laid Him Away", and Beck's "Staggolee" all work because the artists have the good sense to just play the songs to the best of their ability.
Unfortunately most of the artists here feel the need to try and improve upon the original material. To the extent that they do so, their own artistic weaknesses are cruelly revealed. Taj Mahal decides to throw some Hawaiian guitar on his version of "Creole Belle", perhaps to evoke the stale World Music bandwagon he has been riding for the last 20 years. Taj once had his picture taken with Mississippi John Hurt, so perhaps that's when he found out about Hurt's secret Hawaiian connections. But why not get really creative and inter-ethnic and throw in some bagpipes and a didjeridu?
Steve and Justin Earle's leering version of "Candy Man" is even more embarrassing. White people can't seem to handle the sexuality in black music. They either want to censor it or they get all overexcited by it. Steve Earle takes the nudge-nudge, wink-wink, approach and the song ends up sounding very dirty raincoat-ish. Not only that, but he tries to improve on Mississippi John Hurt's lyrics (Steve is a songwriter after all). He contributes a verse about the Candy Man having a "nine-inch candy stick". I guess what makes those ended-up-in-Nashville-because-everybody-here's -so-fat-and-boring-that-they-make-a-dullard- like-me-look-cutting-edge type alt-country singers so alternative is that they have these deep cross-cultural insights like "black guys have big dicks".
Then there's Geoff Muldaur and his wives or sisters or daughters or some women called Muldaur, singing "Chicken". Geoff & Co. get some points for good taste, because this spelling song is a cool piece, but then they decide to add some "down home" style country fiddle. Mississippi John Hurt needs to have the rural vibe of his music emphasized like James Brown's music needs to be arranged by white people to make it more funky. Geoff also makes the song twice as long, like it was too short in the first place.
For about five dollars more than the price of this tawdry paste, you can buy raw pearls: Vanguard's Mississippi John Hurt: The Complete Studio Recordings. Originally released as Today, The Immortal Mississippi John Hurt, and Last Sessions, these are among the most beautiful acoustic blues albums ever made. Although Mississippi John Hurt was in his seventies when he recorded with producer Patrick Sky, he had lost none of his amazing guitar technique and his wistful, ageless voice is saturated in the illicitly distilled, deep dark liquor of American traditional music. Accept no "tributes". Go to the source and drink from the still.