Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Newport Folk Festival – Best of the Blues 1959-68

The Newport Folk Festival was more than a concert to many of the musicians who played here – this was a place where careers could be made, or at least re-born for a new audience. White college kids were discovering the blues and enthusiasts were tracking down legends – many of whom were thought of as long dead. Record executives would come to the festival and would hand performers contracts as they came off the stage. Modern rock bands would cover their material, thus ensuring the writers some sense of financial security. This collection highlights many of the legends who appeared at this important festival.

This 3-CD set is broken down into three section – Delta Blues, Country Blues and Urban Blues. The men who are showcased (and it was all men – despite the number of female blues musicians in the past, this was a very chauvinistic period for the blues) are now, at least mostly, well known and renowned.

The Delta Blues disc includes Mississippi John Hurt (actually more folky to modern ears than traditional blues), Skip James, Son House, Bukka White, Mississippi Fred McDowell and Muddy Waters. Who today could imagine seeing all of these masters at one time in one place?

On disc 2, the Country Blues, there are some musicians that are a little less well known, but still legendary, nonetheless. Robert Pete Williams (who had recently been released from jail where he did time for murder) starts off with some terrific guitar work, making me want to look further into his discography. Mance Lipscomb is another great, followed by the more light-hearted Jesse Fuller (and his kazoo solos), the ever-amazing Reverend Gary Davis, Brownie McGhee & Sonny Terry and closing with Sleepy John Estes.

The final disc, featuring Urban Blues, showcases bluesmen that are likely the most famous of this package. Starting with the solo work of Lightnin’ Hopkins (though Samuel Lay joins him on percussion for “Shake That Thing”), he is followed by the boogie of John Lee Hooker, who is also uncharacteristically accompanied by bassist Bill Lee (Spike Lee’s father) on a couple of numbers. It wasn’t just guitarists who came to Newport and pianist Memphis Slim and his quartet thrilled the crowd with his boogie-woogie, rockin’ blues and Otis Spann dueted with Muddy Waters on a couple of fantastic numbers.

Another very cool tune is the Chamber Brothers (years before their hit with “Time Has Come Today”) doing a gospel/blues version of “See See Rider” – really different and truly phenomenal. The Paul Butterfield Blues Band takes the stage to what sounds like one person half-heartedly applauding, but they give a terrific, traditional blues set. Of course, just the fact that they were an electric band was enough to put off some purists who didn’t realize that by this time, bluesmen had been playing electric for years (though it does sound as if they won over the crowd).

This set shows the many faces and sounds of the blues and preserves concerts that were pivotal to the blues and to popular music in general. A fine collection!