Independent labels have always been the principal outlet for blues recordings, and since the early '70s no label has recorded contemporary Chicago blues musicians more often or more avidly than Alligator Records. Over the years, though, Alligator has expanded its range to include reggae, rock reissues and musicians who've previously made names for themselves playing a hybrid of rock and blues, notably guitarists Johnny Winter and Washington's own Roy Buchanan. For Buchanan in particular, the association with Alligator has meant the difference between calling his own shots and having someone else do it for him.
Roy Buchanan: 'Hot Wires' Buchanan's latest album, "Hot Wires" (Alligator 4756), is a worthy successor to last year's "Dancing on the Edge," one of the most consistent recordings he's ever made. The band remains pretty much the same, with guitarist Donald Kinsey leading a solid, well-seasoned quartet. Gone, however, is vocalist Delbert McClinton, who made a guest appearance on "Edge."
Instead, Buchanan, who's never been much of a singer himself, surrenders the microphone to Johnny Sayles on a couple of tunes, and the move pays off handsomely. Part soul-shouter, part blues-belter, Sayles is a fine balladeer, particularly when the mood grows dark and desperate as it does on the brokenhearted "That Did It." Far less moving is singer Kanika Kress' pale rendition of "These Arms of Mine," which only serves to remind one of Otis Redding's vastly superior version.
As for Buchanan, he tosses in a few low-keyed vocals here and there, but as always his guitar speaks more persuasively. True to form, he's come up with some sizzling (and technically dazzling) instrumentals. The album's twangy title track and the aptly named "Flash Chordin's" recall the era of Duane Eddy and the Ventures without sounding dated or derivative. And the final song, "The Blues Lover," boasts one of those towering solos that is unmistakably Buchanan. He may have replaced his trusty Telecaster with another guitar recently, but he hasn't lost his touch.
A.C. Reed: 'I'm in the Wrong Business' Like Buchanan, veteran saxophonist, singer and songwriter A.C. Reed isn't your typical Alligator artist. For one thing, he's raunchier and more R&B-rooted than most, which is why a lot of listeners will find his new album, "I'm in the Wrong Business" (Alligator 4757), such a nice change of pace. The title tune, for instance, combines an amusing indictment of the music industry with a vocal so weary and convincing that you'd never think of questioning Reed's credentials or the grounds for his complaint.
Rhythmically, the album generally has the languid, loping feel of a Jimmy Reed tune (though the two aren't related, Jimmy Reed's influence is readily apparent throughout, particularly on "This Little Voice" and "The Things I Want You to Do"). Because guests Stevie Ray Vaughan and Bonnie Raitt don't intrude on the mood -- they're more interested in following the groove than creating one -- Reed sets the pace and tone, and except for a couple of throwaway tunes, including the well-intentioned "Don't Drive Drunk," the results are refreshingly outspoken and old-fashioned.
Blues Samplers Nearly 10 years ago, Alligator released a six-record anthology of contemporary Chicago blues called "Living Chicago Blues." The label has now updated that series with "The New Bluebloods: The Next Generation of Chicago Blues" (Alligator 7707). Once again the focus is on young musicians and singers who have yet to establish themselves firmly as recording artists, and while the album's 10 tracks are maddeningly uneven, several performers show considerable promise. Not the least of them are Valerie Wilmington, a singer with an expansive range and a gritty delivery, and the Sons of Blues/Chi Town Hustlers, a band that makes the most of J.W. Williams' imposing voice and Billy Branch's pungent harmonica.
Not surprisingly, several of these young city-bred performers draw more on contemporary gospel and soul music for inspiration than the raw country blues that characterized the first wave of postwar blues recordings in Chicago. A thoroughly enjoyable, if hardly definitive, overview of that period is found on "The Best of Chess Blues" (MCA-Chess CH 6023), a two-record set that spans 17 years of Chicago blues recordings made by Leonard and Phil Chess, beginning with Robert Nighthawk's 1949 recording of "Black Angel Blues."
Culled from the Aristocrat, Chess and Checker labels, the collection is understandably weighted in favor of giants such as Muddy Waters ("Rollin' Stone," "Hoochie Coochie Man"), Howlin' Wolf ("Smokestack Lightnin'," "Back Door Man") and Sonny Boy Williamson ("Your Funeral and My Trial," "Bring It on Home"). But sprinkled throughout are performances by artists who played a smaller but still important role for Chess, including Eddie Boyd, Willie Mabon, J.B. Lenoir, Jimmy Rogers and Buddy Guy. Moreover, the work of John Lee Hooker, Otis Rush and several other blues musicians generally associated with other labels is also represented.
There are 20 performances in all, and you can't listen to more than a few of them without wondering why it is that every so often in American pop music an inordinate number of talented people show up at the same studio at virtually the same time. For Chicago blues, the Chess years were clearly prime time.