Tuesday, February 13, 2007

John Lee Hooker - 'Specialty Profiles'2006 (recordings made in 1954)

Rating: 9/A

For years now I've been telling people that my favourite bluesman is the late John Lee Hooker. That deep, insouciant voice, those one-chord blues jams - that's the high point of the whole genre, for me. A few days back, however, I realised that all I know of Hooker's work are his 70s collaboration with Canned Heat and those slick 90s albums with all the guest artists (some of whom really cook up a storm with The Hook - Van Morrison and surprisingly Bonnie Raitt, and some of whom, especially Santana, seem to simply impose their sound around Hooker's). Of course, I'm just showing my age - the string of albums released in the wake of 1989's come-back hit, The Healer, are how anyone of my generation would have discovered this blues legend, and I think they stand as pretty good albums on their own. The round of guest artists don't always work evenly well, and sometimes Hooker's sound seems to get lost in all the slick production and arrangement, but there are still moments on each album where everything is stripped down to just Hooker's voice and guitar, maybe backed up by one more guitarist, and those moments are pure magic.

So I figured it was time to stop being such a poseur and check out some of his early work, already.

What came to hand was the above-pictured CD. Hooker looked the youngest on this CD cover, and the notes on the back mentioned the year 1954, so I figured I might as well begin here. I might in future discover better early recordings of Hooker (there's quite a lot of early material to be had actually, some of it from the legendary Chess label if I recall correctly), but as of now I'm quite happy what I hear, here.

It's mostly very stripped-down stuff, just Hooker, his guitar, and a good pair of shoes with which to stomp on the floor. Some of the songs ('I'm Mad', 'Everybody's Blues', 'No More Doggin'')pit Hooker's songs against generic drum, bass and piano/sax band arrangements, and, as I'd suspected, it's the solo tracks that really shine.

'Boogie Chillin' No. 2' is a raw, almost primal take on Hooker's first big hit. You'd never think someone could get so much dynamism out of a main riff which consists of banging on a single chord on a box guitar, but there you go. And it isn't as simple as just one chord, really - there are moving-finger embellishments, a percussive attack and rhythmic breaks - blues at such a stripped-down, basic level. The fact that it still works - and brilliantly - confirms my esteem for Hooker.

The other songs aren't so much slack either - 'Burnin' Hell' has some effective harmonica work, a far better accompaniment than the full-fledged band, 'I'm Mad' has some seriously biting and pissed-off vocals, even if the tinkly piano is a bit incongruous. 'I Need Lovin'' pulses with unfulfiled yearning, 'Huckle Up Baby' gets upbeat in a very cool, endearing manner, you can imagine the dance floor frenzy in the juke joints when 'Grinder Man' was played (nad the only percussion on that track is Hooker's shoes, again!) and 'Nothin' But Trouble', where he dispenses domestic advice and 'Odds Against Me' (an alternative title for 'Backbiters and Syndicators', another perennial Hook track) seethe with paranoia and I've-been-done-wrong vibes. He even whistles a bit on 'Goin' Down Highway'!

Hooker never tethered himself to one flavour of the blues, playing both citified urban blues and acoustic folk blues as the trends demanded, and he seems to have brought the same feel and hypnotic quality to everything he took on. I'm glad I took a chance on this recording - I was afraid it would simply be a curiosity and nothing more, like a Leadbelly collection I have, but instead it's a very listenable album of raw acoustic blues with a mood and compulsion of its own. The vibes are different from the more warm, integral and remniscent moods on his later albums - things are rawer, hornier and angrier here, this is the young, hungry Hooker, not the seasoned, gracious living-legend of later years.

The Eiderdown-Stuffing Bottomline: Stripped down blues by one the genre's most charismatic performers. Hooker's musical approach hasn't really changed over the years - it's just the accompanying equipment and collaborators that have moved with the times, so if you like anything from any Hooker era, there's no reason you won't like this, too. This is a very raw and basic interation of his style, and the primitivity is a great part of the appeal, so if you're more into electric blues with virtuoso guitar leads or not much into generic blues at all, avoid. You fool!

2 comments:

Hum do Harami do said...

Thanks for the warning. But did you have to be so rude *-(

JP said...

I thought it would make me sound cool! So that's why. :D