ARKANSAS' Son Seals and Mississippi's Luther (Guitar Junior) Johnson first made their reputations with Chicago blues, but they've been smart enough to move on.
Son Seals made a big splash in Chicago with his pyrotechnic guitar work soon after he moved north in 1971. Having established his reputation, Seals has now returned to his roots in the Memphis area and has cut back on the fret-board fireworks. On his new album, "Bad Axe," his guitar fills are compressed into concise, powerful statements that seem to mimic and elaborate on the vocals. The result is a fruitful hybrid of northern and southern blues styles.
The album's two best songs are southern- styled blues ballads -- the R&B-flavored "Friday Again" and the country-flavored "I Can Count on My Blues"; Seals chooses his notes carefully, and they stand out with stoic expressiveness against Sid Wingfield's floating organ.
Luther Johnson apprenticed with two of the great blues guitarists, Magic Sam and Muddy Waters (he led the Waters band for six years), so it's little wonder that his own style effectively mixes stinging single-note leads and chunky rhythm chords, or that he subtly blends raw energy with polished showmanship.
But on "Doin' the Sugar Too," Johnson also bridges Chicago blues and '60s-style Memphis soul, providing a rough and funky backbeat that is utterly danceable. The title cut and "Get on the Floor" are "Shotgun"-style workouts reminiscent of the best of Junior Walker and Wilson Pickett, while "Flippin' and Floppin' " suggests the rollicking rhythm'n'blues prevalent in the late '40s.
Johnson pays tribute to Waters on an energetic version of Willie Dixon's "I'm Ready," and to Magic Sam on "Hard Times (Have Surely Come)." He also gets to stretch out on "I Need Some Air," developing fluid, achingly sweet solos. Throughout, Ron Levy, a former keyboard player for B.B. King provides pulsating count erpoint, and the Roomful of Blues horn section makes it a swinging big-band effort on four cuts.