Friday, October 19, 2012

Howlin’ Wolf – The Back Door Wolf

In 1973, Howlin’ Wolf had been with Chess Records for nearly 20 years, and when he entered the recording studio for the last time before succumbing to cancer, he was definitely looking backwards as much as forwards. Despite Leonard Chess’ ill-advised idea of adding harpsichord to some tunes (in an effort to “update” the sound and reach more of the younger, white audience), this collection is classic Wolf. Taking musical and lyrical ideas from his own past songs (“How Many More Years” & “Smokestack Lighting” riffs appear, as do lyrics from a number of his own tunes, as well as his hero Charley Patton), Chester Burnett creates a solid piece of blues here.

Of course, the sound and quality is helped immeasurable by his (except for a short stint with Muddy Waters) loyal cohort Hubert Sumlin, the master of the blues guitar, whose playing is impeccable throughout. The rest of the group consisted of Detroit Jr. on keys, James Green or Andrew McMahon on bass and drummer S.P. Leary. Newer tunes include “Coon on the Moon”, an ode to many African-American innovators, and the topical “Watergate Blues”. The sole bonus CD track is an alternative version of “Speak Now Woman” without the harpsichord and with a sensual, stompin’ beat reminiscent of his “Evil”.

While not his best by any means, this is an excellent release by the primal force of nature that is the Wolf. Considering that his illness would take him in just over two years after he left this session, the power of his presence, his voice and his harp playing is nothing short of remarkable. Well worth it!