Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Howlin' Wolf - His Best (MCA/Chess, 1997)

Chester Burnett aka Howlin' Wolf was a man's man, well over six feet tall and three hundred pounds, and endowed with an awesome voice that sounded like it sprang from the very core of the Earth itself. Chess has repackaged its Wolf recordings on a number of occasions, and this is the most recent version, gathering his most well-known recordings. Wolf always employed stellar guitarists, and on this collection are three of the best in modern postwar blues. Willie Johnson, Buddy Guy and Hubert Sumlin all support Wolf with jagged shards of electric guitar, and go a long way in making the music the protean force it is. Howlin' Wolf's own harmonica playing was simple but potent and very effective, adding to the raw power of these performances. Without getting too romantic about the music (which is among my all time favorites) there is something in the majesty and Earthiness about this music that just entrances me. After reading books like Elijah Wald's Escaping the Delta, and more recently Marybeth Hamilton's In Search of the Blues, I have been trying hard to be a little more realistic in my listening and not read into or mythologize the music I listen to, especially since as a middle-class white man in the twenty-first century it is folly for me to even think that I can understand this music. Much like on the Muddy Waters collection I reviewed previously, bassist and composer Willie Dixon is the unsung hero here as well, contributing such classic songs as "Wang Dang Doodle" and "Spoonful" which were not only great blues songs, but would be very influential in early rock 'n' roll music. Wolf's own "Moanin' at Midnight" begins the collection with his own unearthly moan before the band kicks in and the song takes flight. "Back Door Man" and "Forty-Four" brilliantly explore the themes of violence and infidelity in the blues, while "Three Hundred Pounds of Joy" proved that Wolf could throw down a song of braggadocio that would make today's hip-hop stars, or his rival Muddy Waters, green with envy. This wonderful disc is the cornerstone of any post-war blues collection. Solid liner notes and photographs are added to the package. If you are not familiar with this music, you are in for one of the most hair raising treats in American music.

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