Even blues fans who don't like George Thorogood will admit that the man knows how to have a good time.
Thorogood emerged out of the blues a few years ago with the songs of John Lee Hooker, Robert Johnson, Elmore James and Bo Diddley wedged together on both sides of his first album. When the record's sales surpassed anyone's expectations, Thorogood fast became the big bluesman on campus -- a heavy slide-guitar alternative to the tangle of synthesized disco strings then choking the airwaves.
His next release reinforced the image. His chainsaw guitar cut through a few more Elmore James tunes; bluesmen Brownie McGhee and Willie Dixon were added to the song credits; and Thorogood's extensive roadwork won him a still larger audience.
No matter that he often sounded several steps removed from the source. No matter that his version of Slim Harpo's "I'm Just Your Good Thing," for example, owed more to the way the early Rolling Stones treated Harpo's music than anything the Louisiana bluesman ever recorded himself. And no matter that Thorogood's reading of Bo Diddley's classic "Who Do You Love" sounded as if it had been filtered through the recordings of John Hammond Jr. After all, Throgood was out to enjoy himself, and the party lights are still burning brightly on his latest album, "More George Thorogood and the Destroyers" (Rounder 3045).
As expected, the names remain the same: Hooker, Dixon, James and Harpo are all represented. However, the addition of Hank Carter on saxophone gives the album a rollicking mid-'50s R&B flavor. The exceptions are songs by Hooker and Carl Perkins. Hooker's "One Way Ticket" is cast in an appropriately dark and ominous mood. Of the many musicians Thorogood emulates, Hooker's sinister phrasing seems to fascinate him most. He even goes so far as to mimic the bluesman's feigned stutter and brooding silences.
Perkins' "Restless" isn't as successful. For all the energy and excitement Thorogood brings to the blues guitar, he remains a rather stilted vocalist. While you can't fault his taste or his guitar playing, "Restless" is the closest thing to a lifeless track on the album.
Thorogood is better off blending rock and R&B. The combination works beautifully when he merges the staccato runs of Chuck Berry with the flagrant hyperbole of Willie Dixon on "I'm Wanted." A similar strategy converts the "House of Blue Lights" into a shrine commemorating the enduring appeal of Berry's rock 'n' roll guitar. "Kids From Philly," the only original tune on the album, is a raw, primitive, funky instrumental. Carter, who also borrows liberally from the past, plows his saxophone through it in the broad, swaggering manner of King Curtis.
When Thorogood and the Destroyers appear at the Warner Theater Dec. 14, they'll be armed with several sure-fire tunes from the album, including Muddy Waters' "Bottom of the Sea." With its metronomic back-beat and double-time chorus, the song is precision-fitted to Thorogood's rhythmic needs. When it comes to squeezing the last drop of sweat out of a song, he has few rivals.
Thorogood isn't passing himself off as the blues incarnate or aspiring to great art. He is, however, sharing the blues legacy with a lot of people who might not otherwise here it, and having himself a hell of a time to boot.
The same attitude characterizes the debut album by Preacher Jack -- "Rock 'n' Roll Preacher" (Rounder 3033) -- which features Thorogood's bassist, Billy Blough, and drummer Jeff Simon. Preacher Jack, who will appear tomorrow night at Desperado's, is billed as the "Baptist Barroom Boogie Woogie Preacher with a Rock 'n' Roll Soul." That may be, but there are times -- especially during the opening number. "Break up" -- when Preacher Jack could be arrested for impersonating Jerry Lee Lewis. From one end of the keyboard to the other, from the left-hand hammer chords to the right-hand flourishes, Preacher Jack has the sound down pat.
Unfortunately, Preacher Jack then goes on to spread himself tissue-thin. The balance of the album is an uneven mix of honky-tonk country, R&B boogie woogie and gospel tunes. Preacher Jack has a flair for each style, and rockabilly guitarist Sleepy Labeef adds a few nice touches. But their efforts aren't strong enough to make the dozen tracks come together as a whole.
Whether Preacher Jack's outgoing personality will provide the missing link in concert remains to be seen.