In 1966, when the folk label Vanguard issued the three-album series Chicago: The Blues Today!,
it was as if somebody had opened the back door to a blues club deep inside the Windy City’s South Side and let thousands of college kids sneak a peek at the party going on inside. Here was electric music that took then back to the wellspring of rock 'n' roll's power and excitment. For many it was the first time hearing Muddy Waters
’s sidemen such as Jr. Wells
, Otis Spann
and Buddy Guy
with their own bands, or such regional favorites as J. B. Hutto
and Homesick James and his Duster
s; or country blues transplants including Johnny Young and Johnny Shines
. For a burgeoning 60’s youth culture, the awakening was divine.
Now those electric blues insiders can permanently store away these worn down album grooves with the slightly mildewed covers, and a new generation can discover the timeless sounds of Chicago's second blues wave because Vanguard has reissued all three Chicago: The Blues Today!, albums. This lovely set retains producer Sam Charters’s original liner notes, as well as his wife Ann Charters’s photo of the snow-covered El, which still graces the cover, a symbol of the long trek African-Americans made from the poverty of the rural South to the industrialized North that promised a living wage, racial equality and brick housing projects with indoor plumbing.
The zest of this new life is reflected on disc one in the squeal of Junior Wells’s blues harp at the opening of "All Night Long." Wells's piquant solo is followed by some nasty guitar work from his then-partner Buddy Guy. J. B. Hutto’s big voice shouts out from the fields and Southern black churches in "Help Me," while his slide guitar rings with remembrances of the night before in "Too Much Alcohol." Muddy Waters’s piano man Otis Spann, accompanied only by bassist S.Pl Leary, fills the dance floor in the instrumental "Marie," his playing sassy, but so deep in the barrelhouse tradition that it smells like cheap perfume. Then Spann slows things down to tell of the things a man will do for a woman in "Burning Fire."
Disc two opens with harpist James Cotton’s classic shuffle "Cotton Crop Blues." He blows and howls like a hurricane in this tale of leaving the cotton fields behind, then tells of the loneliness in his new life on "The Blues Keep Falling." Guitarist Otis Rush checks in with a chickin’ pickin’ instrumental cover of "Everything’s Going to Turn Out Alright" and the burning blues of his signature tune "I Can’t Quit You Baby." Homesick James and his Dusters have a country-fied sound with his slide guitar floating like mist over the crossroads in "Dust My Broom."
Guitar and mandolin player Johnny Young’s band gets raunchy in "One More Time," disc three’s opening track. Then the rough-hewn guitar work and vibrato-laden singing of Johnny Shines returns the set to the country in "Dynaflow Blues." Two champion blues harp players, Big Walter Horton and Memphis Charlie Musselwhite team up for double harmonica duty in the gentle "Rockin’ My Boogie."
Though "Chicago blues" has become a catch-all phrase, the music on Chicago: The Blues Today!, has as many flavors as a witch doctor’s gumbo. From earthy to ethereal, the music captures not just a taste of Chicago in the ‘60s, but the whole palate. Dig in.