IF ORIGINALITY, as one pundit put it, is the art of concealing your sources, then most contemporary bluesmen fail meiserably. But the finest in the field don't make any claims to originality: Confronted with the kind of competition Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker and B. B. King represent, just sounding credible is hard enough. As three recent releases of Washington musicians illustrate, it's a talent not acquired overnight.
It has taken Catfish Hodge several records to achieve the kind of confidence and control he demonstrates on "Bout With the Blues" (Adelphi 4126). A bear of a man with a voice to match, Hodge's presence on stage is generally all that's needed to ensure a good time. He's long been a master at exploiting the primitive chants popularized by John Lee Hooker. His own "Boogieman" is about as big as a crowd-pleaser as your're likely to find in a club.
It isn't, however, the stuff of which great albums are made (not even Hookers's) and Hodge knows it. As a result, on "Bout" he covers more territory than ever before. Side one opens and closes with a couple of personal tributes to Little Feat: "So bad" ("I went and saw Little Feat bring that Lisner down," sings Catfish) could have easily been written by Lowell George.
"Long Night" is an ominous, pulsating blues written in the Memphis vein. "Bad News, Good News" seems to owe more to T-Bone Walker and Percy Mayfield than anyone else, but it's Hodge's exasperating vocal that holds your attention. When he finally gets to the kicker ("The bad news is you've been cheatin'. The good news is you and I are through") the revenge is sweet enough to taste. There's more good news on "Louisiana Woman," another of Hodge's evocative tributes to Professor Longhair -- this time with Mitch Collins on keyboards and Catfish singing as if Longhair himself were listening.
The only disappointments "Bout" holds are the shallow cover versions of the soul tunes "Trying' to Live" and "You Don't Know." Happily, they are only pauses in what is otherwise a knockout of an album.
No one has ever questioned Roy Buchanan's ability to play the blues; he's an extraordinary guitarist -- fast, sure, inventive. He's also a lousy singer, something he readily admits and a problem that has led to some of his most unconvincing recordings.
Recently Buchanan, in search of a band that could get behind the early R & B music that originally inspired him bach in the '50s, auditioned dozens of musicians before going into a studio at his own expense to cut "My Babe" (Waterhouse 12).
What he came away with is an album that falls considerably short of his goals, but perhaps not his expectations. Putting together a band on such short notice has obvious drawbacks and you don't need headphones to discover them on "My Babe." The album lacks focus, merging wistful ballads and instrumentals with R & B rockers and a tortuous blues suite. Lead vocalist Paul Jocaobs is never more than adquate, and the band seldom gels as a unit, something particularly obvious on the sluggish "Dizzy Miss Lizzy."
But Buchanan is clearly moving in the right direction. He's stripped the production of unnecessary hardware and there's an immediacy to the recording generally missing on his Atlantic sides. His playing sharper and more economical than ever; on more than one occasion, his guitar alone carries the band. "My Babe" is a beginning for Buchanan who, with his first experience as a producer behind him, is in a position to tighten things up considerably next time.
Like buchanan, the Blues Rockers are a bit shy in the vocal department. Their debut album, "you Never Know" (Sound Records 5311), credits both Billy Gordon and Bob Miezel as singers, but neither can overrcome the dreadful mixing on this production.
Gordon's gifts as a guitarist, however, are hard to ignore. He wears his influences on his sleeve: Chuck Berry, Elmore James, Jimi Hendrix, to name a few. He can be excessively flashy at times, unnerving in his use of the wah-wah pedal and distortion, and awfully predictable. Yet he's resourceful enough to elevate mediocre songs to the point where you want to hear them again -- preferably live.