Half a century ago, Michigan blues fan Jim Fishel brought a low-budget analog tape recorder, a handful of cassettes – and a couple of fresh sets of bulky C batteries – to the Ann Arbor Blues Festival. One can only wonder if he was aware just how much history he was going to capture. The highlights of those field recordings have just been released on vinyl for the first time ever on vinyl, in two volumes streaming at Bandcamp. It’s a goldmine of rare and often unusual performances by some of the greatest blues artists of all time.
The sound quailty varies. A handful of numbers – including J. B. Hutto savagely chopping his way through the Elmore James soundalike Too Much Alcohol, and Jimmy “Fast Fingers” Dawkins swinging I Wonder Why – are so trebly that when the guitars are cooking, with the reverb all the way up, it’s painful to listen to them at high volume on headphones. But others are surprisingly good quality – digital tweaking is most likely responsible for a surprising amount of bass presence. And many of the performances are amazing. These artists aren’t pandering to a stoned hippie audience – they’re kicking out the jams just like they’d been doing for decades on the chitlin circuit.
Barrelhouse pianist Roosevelt Sykes’ hilarious hokum blues Dirty Mother For Ya – which he proudly recalls recording for Decca Records in 1934 – opens the album. Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup contributes a raw, fresh take of So Glad You’re Mine, just guitar and drums. Junior Wells sends a shout to his blues harp mentor, the late Sonny Boy Williamson, with an expansive performance of Help Me. B.B. King sings a wrenchingly impassioned version of I’ve Got a Mind to Give Up Living after introducing it with a long, unexpectedly upbeat solo.
Mississippi Fred McDowell’s shuffling, twangy slide guitar interpretation of the folk staple John Henry turns out to be more about jaggedly leaping riffage than the story itself. “I plays it different from other folks, you know, I plays it so you can understand it,” he deadpans. Longtime Muddy Waters pianist Pinetop Perkins shows off a punishing left hand in his signature boogie-woogie instrumental.
“The Original Howlin’ Wolf and His Orchestra” get seventeen minutes to seemingly make up a couple of tunes on the spot – and assail an unresponsive sound guy to “Wake up over there!” Hearing the Wolf backed by brass is quite a change, and lead guitarist Hubert Sumlin’s searing solo reminds why he was Jimi Hendrix’ favorite player.
A suave, thirtysomething Otis Rush delivers the elegant Great Migration chronicle So Many Roads. Muddy Waters, in rare form as a showman, tells the crowd he’s going to take them back to the 40s – when he’d run out of a barbershop after a pretty woman on the street – then takes his time with Long Distance Call.
Interestingly, it’s harpist Charlie Musselwhite and band who veer the closest to jazz here, with the jump blues instrumental Moovin’ and Groovin’. T-Bone Walker is all over the place but just as sophisticated throughout a careening, eleven-minute Stormy Monday, then returns to do the same behind Big Mama Thornton’s unleashed wail on Ball and Chain.
Magic Sam turns in one of the night’s most feral numbers with I Feel So Good (I Wanna Boogie). Shirley Griffith’s spare, precise take of Jelly Jelly Blues is the biggest throwback to the old delta style here. One of only two acoustic performances here is from Big Joe Williams, whose high-voltage Juanita strangely doesn’t seem to grab the audience.
Sam Lay’s version of Key to the Highway doesn’t take many chances with the Muddy Waters original. The band follow Lightning Hopkins’ unpredictable changes in Mojo Hand with aplomb; then James Cotton works the dynamics of his blues harp instrumental Off the Wall up and down for fifteen increasingly interminable minutes. The album winds up with Son House prefacing his iconic Death Letter Blues with some oldtime blues history, then giving an impressively shivery treatment, solo on acoustic with his slide.
Obviously, you can’t expect a field recording to be perfect, sonically or otherwise, and this isn’t. Clifton Chenier was every bit as proficient at blues as he was at zydeco, so the cajun ballad Tu M’a Promis is out of place. A pretty pointless Luther Allison interlude is haphazardly edited, and the Big Mojo Ellum tune could have been left on the cutting room floor. The piano goes further and further out of tune, intros and outros get chopped off, there’s audience chitchat and a couple of quaint moments where the tape stops and then restarts. Still, for diehard electric blues fans, this is a must-hear and it’s a great introduction for kids who’re just getting into the music.