Emporio Records EMPRCD 805
There isn’t a great deal left to be written about albums by John Le Hooker so settling down to listen to this selection of seven tunes, all Hooker songs with the exception of Curtis Mayfield’s ‘It Serves You Right to Suffer’ felt a little predictable. And it’s a recording of a live performance in Houston from 1979 so the prospect of John Lee Hooker badly recorded didn’t fill me with glee. It’s often the way, isn’t it, that something you are not looking forward to turns out to be not too bad after all, or, sometimes, really enjoyable! And that was certainly the case with ‘The Real Blues’.
I never saw a live performance by John Lee Hooker, one of the 638 regrets that I have in life (my wife keeps telling me that it’s important to see these musical legends before it’s too late and, of course, she is right - as always) but listening to this album is the closest I’ll get…….. and it comes very close.
The quality of the recording is superb, close your eyes and it is like having John Lee perform in your own front room. Every note and every word is clear as a bell and you can almost imaging being in that Houston Club thirty-one years ago. Some studio recordings of John Lee Hooker can be a little one-dimensional and it sometimes takes a recording like this to remind you that the blues work best when performed in an intimate setting to a live audience. Hooker gives his guitar playing plenty of opportunities for expression, simple stuff but with the feeling that make s you know you are listening to a real bluesman, but it is his banter with the audience and his band, especially his mock berating of harmonica players, which gives you some insight of just why he is one of the greats. As Muddy waters might have said, “Wasn’t that a Man!”
‘Go Back to School’ kicks the album off in typical John Lee Hooker fashion, a driving beat coupled with gritty vocals and a band watching out for those changes. You can feel the audience’s delight and appreciation at the start and reflected in the applause at the end. Hooker slows things down and really attacks the next song, the one, before taking the tempo back up in ‘Roll Your Daddy Right’.
He slows thing right down in his rendition of Jesse James Blues when he tells the audience not to mess with him and why he is not a man to be messed with and then follows this with a haunting, beautifully delivered version of ‘Never Get Out of These Blues Alive’. The album finishes with two minutes of great banter with the audience before a stunning version of ‘Dead Wagon Blues’, a heartfelt blues about TB delivered with stunning clarity by John Lee with just his guitar to a reverentially silent audience. Lie back, close your eyes and think of Houston.