Earlier this year Alligator Records released the second installment of "Living Chicago Blues (Vol. 4 thru 6; AL 7704-6), the most comprehensive survey of contemporary bluesmen yet compiled.
Whereas the first three albums helped reestablish such neglected veterans as guitarists Lonnie Brooks, Left Hand Frank and Jimmy Johnson -- leading to further recordings in some cases -- the latest series focuses on several musicians who have worked primarily as sidemen in Chicago: Muddy Waters' former guitarist, Luther "Guitar Jr." Johnson; Son Seals' ex-rhythm-guitarist, Lacy Gibson; and tenor saxman A. C. Reed, who seems to have backed up everyone in Chicago short of Mayor Byrne. Each gets a chance to record with his own band, and it's largely these contributions that make the latter part of the survey so enjoyable and worthwhile.
The Alligator series was inspired -- in part, at least -- by a landmark collection of Chicago blues released by Vanguard in the mid-'60s. "Chicago/The Blues Today," produced by Sam Charters, introduced James Cotton, Otis Rush, Homesick James and the late Otis Spann to a national audience. It also reinforced the partnership of Junior Wells and Buddy Guy.
Since then, Wells and Guy have toured extensively, but many of their recordings have been weighted to favor Wells' funky harp and vocals -- not always compatible with Guy's often delicate, bittersweet -- and the overall quality of their records together has been uneven at best. More recently, Guy has been busy with his southside club, The Checkerboard, while his fans have contented themselves with his old recordings, many of them dating back 15 to 20 years.
Now comes Alligator to the rescue. Guy's "Stone Crazy" (AL 4723), a French session recorded in 1979, offers a clear, unobstructed view of his talent. The album presents Guy at the peak of his seductive powers, recalling the pure, unadorned sound of his early recordings.
Aside from being a guitarist of great speed, control and sensitivity, Guy is also a commanding vocalist. His high whispering cries pack a strong punch, whether he's caught up in a homesick reverie as on "Are You Losing Your Mind?" or counting emotional scars as on "I Smell a Rat."
Unlike Wells, who at times sounds as if he's simply going through the paces when he sings, Guy convinces you that the words are as important as the music. Only when he can't express something vocally does he let his fingers do the talking; sharp rising, twisting patterns serve as a kind of emotional catharsis for him. Frequently he's heard growling above the guitar as if the music is as physically demanding as it is emotionally. For Guy, and blues fans in general, this performance is long overdue.
Another Alligator release, Tony Mathews' "Condition: Blues" (AL 4722), is far less impressive, but it does showcase a promising young talent. For the past seven years Mathews has been playing guitar in Ray Charles' band; before that he put in time with several other singers including Ben E. King, Jackie Wilson and Johnny Taylor.
There's no denying the fact that Mathews has benefited from such experience. As a guitarist he possesses a warm, glowing tone that he applies tastefully to a broad range of material. His voice, too, is pleasant, capable of interpreting pop, funk and soul tunes with ease if not distinction.
Unfortunately, Mathews seems to have stretched his sources thin on this release. In moving from funk to soul to a John Lee Hooker impression -- all within the span of side one -- he only succeeds in outlining his interests. aThere's precious little time left for him to concentrate on any one area, let alone develop a consistent sound or identify.
As far as blues material is concerned, he's at his best when approaching T-Bone Walker's brassy orchestrations on "Laid-Off." The balance of the album, though, suggests his talents as a guitarist and writer are better suited to funk an soul.
Johnny Copeland's focus is a lot tighter on "Copeland Special" (Rounder 2025). Copeland is the real thing, a Texas bluesman who, like Walker and Gatemouth Brown and Cleanhean Vinson, derives considerable power and stamina from a pumping horn section. And what a horn section -- Arthur Blythe, Byard Lancaster and George Adams conspire with Copeland on separate occasions to make the sleeper of the year.
Copeland has written eight of the 10 selection, and though some are highly derivative -- his "Claim Jumper" seems to be a lot like Rufus Thomas' "Tiger Man" -- each is delivered in his distinctly convincing manner.
"I Wish I Was Single" is typical: Copeland's raspy voice is choked with emotion and pain, the horns, languishing in the background at first, build to a heated intensity, spurring the guitarist on, making his story all the more compelling.
Oddly enough, Copeland's poignant inflections seem to owe more to Big Mama Thornton on "It's My Own Tears" than any of his male counterparts. Indeed, the entire track, one of the strongest on the album, evokes Thornton's inspired music.
Copeland is joined on the title cut by Arthur Blythe, whose own recordings have consistently straddled traditional and modern approaches. Actually, the tune is little more than a jump band riff stretched our over a few choruses, but Blythe finds room on it to soar, his alto sax breaking free of the horn section for one brief, liberating solo.
In short, "Copeland Special" is a refreshing, intelligent look at a master bluesman working with some uncommonly gifted and sympathetic musicians.