Last year Vanguard Records released Avalon Blues, a tribute to the legacy of Mississippi John Hurt. Folksinger Peter Case, who conceived of the project and assembled the album, says he first heard Hurt's music at age 13, a couple years after the bluesman's death in 1966, and he's been smitten ever since. On Avalon Blues Case performs a duet with roots rocker Dave Alvin, while their colleague here, acoustic bluesman Chris Smither, takes a song for himself; the other artists on the compilation include Alvin Youngblood Hart, Gillian Welch, Beck, and the team of Steve Earle and his son Justin. The tunes are all either written by Hurt or associated with him, and for the most part the performers dig into them with a minimum of posturing and a healthy dose of spirit. On Case and Alvin's rendition of "Monday Morning Blues," Case works hard to charge his smooth, somewhat nasal voice with enough grit to make it an effective blues instrument, and mostly succeeds (though his faux-Delta pronunciation of "bleews" is still a bit grating). Alvin, by contrast, sounds casual and conversational, answering Case's verses call-and-response style in his well-traveled and richly seasoned drawl; his guitar playing, gentle yet fiercely precise, echoes Hurt's virtuosic combination of delicate textures and understated intensity. Smither, the most deeply rooted in the blues of the three, knew Hurt personally in the early 60s, and sounds utterly in his element on "Frankie & Albert," which Hurt first recorded in 1928 (as just "Frankie"). Smither's pristine fingerpicking is relentlessly propulsive, and his molasses-rich voice blends a tightly wound vibrato with unforced aggressiveness; his intonation is impeccable, and his blue notes, growls, and whiskey-scented slurs all sound completely natural. As appealing as Case and Alvin can be on their own terms, they aren't first and foremost bluesmen, and neither could call up Hurt's spirit on his own--fortunately, Smither is more than up to the task. At this show the three singers will share the stage and trade lead vocal duties. Friday, June 14, 7:30 and 10 PM, Old Town School of Folk Music, 4544 N. Lincoln; 773-728-6000.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Frank Swider, Greg Allen, Paragon Light.com.