CHICKEN, GRAVY & BISCUITS
Lil' Ed and the Blues Imperials
Alligator AL 4772
When west-side guitarist Lil' Ed Williams burst onto the scene two years ago with the joyously rowdy Roughhousin' LP, many hailed it as a return by Alligator Records to the kind of raw, unpretentious blues that made Chicago famous. Although his open-throttle approach was miles from the Delta subtleties that characterized classic Chicago blues, Ed's music brought back the riotous, gut-pleasing sound of an uninhibited slide guitar slashing its way above a hard-pounding rhythm section; it sounded one part west-side after-hours pickup session and one part mid-60s rock 'n' roll garage band. Lil' Ed was hailed as the perfect counterpart to the slick sophistication of Robert Cray and the superstar histrionics of Johnny Winter and Stevie Ray Vaughan.
As it turned out, though, the future hasn't quite fulfilled the promise. Fits and starts characterize Lil' Ed's career. When he's on, he's one of the most spectacular showmen in blues, culminating his performances by doing crotch-splitting deep knee bends and leaping atop his sidemen, all the while firing out searing treble screams with his slide. He's one of the few artists whose live performances and records sustain the same level of high-energy exuberance.
But initial success came rapidly for the young west-sider, perhaps too rapidly. Like many before him, Ed soon became enmeshed in a series of musical and personal mishaps that resulted in a series of blown gigs, fired bandsmen, and an eventual period of mandatory rest and relaxation during which he pretty much dropped out of sight. He resurfaced a few weeks ago for a couple of triumphant Chicago-area press release parties for this LP, but even these found him having problems with punctuality. He still hasn't resumed regular road work.
With all that personal chaos, many wondered if his music could survive. The happy news is that this LP picks up where Roughhousin' left off: it's a full-force sonic blast to the solar plexus that features Ed's distinctive soul-piercing slide and is enhanced by a pair of new sidemen--guitarist Mike Garrett and drummer Kelly Littleton--who bring to the music a jaunty, rockabilly lightness that enhances the west-side grit of Ed's guitar and vocals and allows him to venture in some surprising new directions. Bassist James "Pookie" Young lays down his usual no-nonsense bottom; the support he gets from Littleton lets him lighten up and provide a bit more musical impetus than he could in the past.
Ed kicks this LP off with characteristic aggressiveness: the title tune starts out with a few bars of countryish chording then plunges headlong into a powerful boogie-woogie shuffle overlaid with his tubular slide work. The sound is somewhat cleaner--but no less exuberant--than the last LP's, and Garrett's rollicking accompaniment immediately establishes the underlying rockabilly feel that brings such a fresh perspective to the back-alley raunch of Ed's blues on this record. As is his custom, Ed inserts a tribute to his late uncle, slide guitarist J.B. Hutto, with a reference to "Shake Your Money Maker" toward the end.
It's on "Master Charge," the second cut, that we begin to get the feeling that Ed has some new ideas in mind. It starts off with a full-toned, single-string lead intro from Ed, instead of his usual slide, sounding almost like a Magic Slim outtake. Again Garrett keeps things cooking with chunky, Memphis-style chording, and Ed fires off his solo in a refreshingly straight-ahead manner Chicagoans seldom hear anymore east of Western Avenue.
The only drawback to this disc, first encountered on "Master Charge," is an occasional tendency to fall into a vamping groove and repeat it past the point of monotony. This kind of thing works fine in live performance, but on record, without the sweaty exuberance of the moment, it can get stale in a hurry. Maybe it's time for Alligator to rethink its famous one-take, "live gig in the studio" technique of recording Lil' Ed. Nonetheless, the song kicks along in fine rowdy fashion, with Ed's inspired leads buoyed by the newfound sophistication of the sidemen. I only wish it'd been about a minute shorter, and that the dwindling-down-to-nothing ending had been better worked out.
It's becoming a Lil' Ed trademark to include a number on each album that's sure to rankle the sensibilities of some listeners. Last time out it was "Car Wash Blues," with its notorious reference to a "mean old Jew" of a boss. The ear-popper on this one is "S.D. Jones." There's a real-life S.D. Jones--a professional wrestler whose initials stand for "Special Delivery"--but Ed's song creates an entirely fictional hero who's a questionable role model, to say the least: "He takes the women, treats them like dust / in spite of all this, you never hear them cuss. . . . / He tells 'em all that he's the man / and he'll dump them all like garbage in a can / He's a lover, and they always call him on the phone. . . . / S stands for Sugar--you can figure out the rest!" The song itself is a wonderful, lurching blues, unabashed in its pugnacious macho and at least partially redeemed by the playfulness that permeates everything Ed does. Ed's slide here is vintage: dirty and raucous, with an incendiary aggression that perfectly portrays the badass strutting of the title character, followed by a bare-bones solo from Garrett that spits fire and chaos all over the grooves.
Only a musician like Ed could pull off something like "S.D. Jones," apparently uninhibited by (and even unaware of) the norms of the straitlaced world. As we idolize (and even romanticize) the "authenticity" of a raw, street-level talent like Ed's, we've sometimes got to leave our notions of propriety at the door.
After "S.D." comes "Walkin'," a showcase for Ed's broken-glass, splintering slide work pushed along by the band in a shuffle as propulsive as any I've heard in a long time. Then Ed pulls out his first big surprise of the album: "Blues for Jeanette," a wonderfully effective slow blues. Ed doesn't try to be a balladeer here; this is a three- o'clock-in-the-morning howl of agony, with a subdued minor-key backing that allows Ed to cry out his tale of woe with convincing anguish and enough restraint in both his singing and playing to let the song's smoldering passion assert itself, enhanced by a musicality that Ed is just beginning to explore. Again the song drones on a bit, but the final slide solo is worth the wait, broad-toned and melodic, showing substantial musical development since the last LP.
"Jeanette," though, is only a prelude to the most unexpected delight on the record. It's another ballad, almost hidden toward the end of side two, titled "Got My Mind Made Up." This is a deep blues ballad, introduced by a bone-chilling slide wail and then showcasing Ed singing in an astonishingly gentle and worldly voice, almost a croon, with a maturity one would never have expected from him. The band quiets to a near-whisper, with just Garrett's moody chording in the background. After a few verses Ed breaks into a passionate slide solo, somewhat less subtle than what's gone before but culminating in a thoughtfully understated bridge. It's not trite to say that the song comes from the heart of a young man's bitter experience ("There'll be no more worry, no more drugs in my life / There'll be no more, no more stayin' out all night"); it should give pause to those--like me--who've heretofore considered Ed nothing more (or less) than a first-rate, boogie-fueled party master.
"Got My Mind Made Up" is sandwiched comfortably beween two up-tempo barn burners, the wonderfully titled "Face Like a Fish" and the final cut, "Blues Imperials Theme." This last one is a perfect closer: it starts out with a pastiche of slide licks, again beginning where Uncle J.B. left off, starting with Hutto's trademark flailing triplets laid over the 4/4 shuffle rhythm and then soaring into ecstatic high-treble screams. Ed gives each musician his chance to stretch out, and they make the most of it--Garrett's solo consists primarily of his sure-handed rhythm style amplified to a raucous shout; bassist Young steps in with some string-popping blues funk, the kind you hear in neighborhood clubs played by musicians equally influenced by blues tradition and post-60s pop; Littleton finally gets a chance to strut his straightforward blues percussion technique.
This is the kind of finishing number that usually finds Ed soaring spread-legged out into the audience or leaping atop a sideman's shoulders, kicking up the energy level until you think it can't get any higher and then goosing it some more. It puts an appropriately optimistic cap on an album that continues in Ed's high-octane party tradition while giving us some tantalizing glimpses into a more mature side of his personality. As he readies himself for another go at touring and a second shot at the stardom that seemed inevitable a few years ago, it's a side of himself Ed needs to nurture. From what he shows on this album, he has what it takes.