Howlin' Wolf - 'Rockin the Blues

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Years ago, when I was engrossed in reading The Rolling Stone Record Guide and searching out the better rated albums, I found a record with Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood, Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman (the latter two of the Rolling Stones).  Not a bad mix of talent!

It was rated four stars, and the "risk" factor was that they were backing an unknown, to me,The London Howlin Wolf Sessions named Chester Burnett, aka Howlin' Wolf.  Still, the blues are the blues, even though I was only acquainted with the English and American reinterpretations.  In short, it was worth a few bucks.

The London Howlin' Wolf Sessions was fairly good, but exceptional moments were few and the clean production made it seem less than inspired.  It certainly didn't draw me any closer to the Wolf, whose voice seemed reduced in the mix.  He didn't stand out at the time.

In the years since, I've explored a lot of blues artists - Son House, Skip James, Robert Johnson, Elmore Leonard, Muddy Waters, Mance Lipscomb and others.  My interest in most of these was primarily the guitar.  Howlin' Wolf, as his name would suggest, is known for his vocals, but he keeps getting mentioned as one of the blues greats.

I read an interesting review of this re-release and decided to give the Wolf another try.  Recorded live in Bremen, Germany, it features longtime guitarist Hubert Sumlin (still playing today), Willie Howlin' Wolf Dixon (author of several of the most covered blues  songs), and other noteworthy musicians.

The sound of the recording, being live and in 1964, is not that great.  It's in mono sound (the same sounds coming from both speakers) and doesn't have a great sonic spectrum - the lows aren't that low, and the high's aren't quite clear.  So, what's left?

A great performance, an artist doing what he does best outside of the constraints of a studio.  These weren't the days when bands planned every note of solos or the exact length of concerts to the timing of the programmed lighting effects. It was raw and of the moment.  But front and center in this recording is the voice of Howlin' Wolf, this time not lost in the shuffle of the instrumentation.  He has a gravely voice and the ability to use it forcefully, whether it be menacing, earthy, or even conversational.  In every case, he sounds like a man who sings it as he means it and who gets what he wants. 

Interestingly, the passion that clearly comes across on this recording was apparently not reflective of his home life.  From a quote from his wife in the liner notes:

"He liked just being at home with his family.  He'd come home and sit in the den and play records for hours.  I guess he got ideas then.  When he was at home, he was just a quiet man who smoked a pipe and read the paper.  Nothing excited him.  Not a thing.  I'd say, 'Old man, ain't you happy about something?' He never showed that he was happy or sad.  Never."

He apparently saved it for his shows. Among so many early blues artists who spoke mostly through their instruments, he and Son House stand out as having the vocal presence to take the standard blues lyrics and make it seem like they mean it.  There were certainly many better blues guitarists that would follow, but Wolf sang many of the better "old" blues songs in a way that sets him apart from the technically superior musicians that would follows.  The raw stuff is recommended for those that like the genre, and this CD has a good mix of many of his better songs.

Recommended: "Shake it for Me," "Dust My Broom," "Howlin' for my Darlin'"

Rating: 3 of 5

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