HIGHWAY IS MY HOME
Some blues artists have virtually patented certain musical trademarks--melodic lines, rhythmic patterns, even harmonic combinations or fluctuations in timbre and tone--that retain their freshness no matter how many times we hear them. Elmore James's "Dust My Broom" riff, Howlin' Wolf's modal single-chord moans and triplet-laden 2/4-time boogies, Sunnyland Slim's tumbling treble flurries--all have been recycled countless times, yet they never seem to get stale. In fact it could be argued that one measure of blues genius is the ability to elevate repetition to the level of art.
Guitarist Magic Slim mostly confines himself to two or three fretboard positions per solo, his stock of staccato barrages and extended lines becomes predictable after only a few songs, and he has yet to develop more than one ending, which he tacks onto almost every one of his songs. But Slim can still blow the roof off even the most staid venue, and his uncompromising rawness is a marvel in today's age of sanitized blues superstars: a whiff of juke-joint cigar smoke, whiskey, and soul food seems to follow Slim wherever he goes.
Record producers seem to find it difficult to capture Slim's sound, however. For one thing he accentuates the extremes of the sonic spectrum: the bass line booms, perhaps because Slim himself started out as a bass player, and the high-treble leads scream. Slim's drummers have tended to be rock-steady shuffle men, more intent on driving the beat than laying filigrees of ride-cymbal finesse over the top as a jazz percussionist might.
Highway Is My Home, recorded on the French Black & Blue label late in 1978, is part of Evidence Records' reissuing of the Black & Blue catalog. Chicago drum legend Fred Below is featured on this disc, although Slim's regular drummer during this period was Nate Applewhite. Especially appealing is the presence of the late Coleman ("Alabama Junior") Pettis on rhythm guitar. Although technically limited, Pettis achieved a synergy with Slim that can only be described as uncanny; the two seemed to fill in each other's empty spaces with an instinct that bordered on the psychic.
Despite the tantalizing lineup there are problems with this disc, and a lot of them can be laid at Black & Blue's door. European blues labels tend to romanticize unadorned spontaneity, sometimes to the point of forcing even the most modern blues artists into the sparsest context imaginable. Even a well-rehearsed group like Slim's can need direction in the tense sterility of a studio environment, and there are places here where one wishes a little more care had been taken to hone and finish the product to better reflect the level of talent on hand.
"Living in My Neighborhood," for instance, is based on one of Slim's most infectious patterns: Ray Sharpe's jaunty "Linda Lu" riff. But the muted production strips Slim of much of his energy. His slashing chords and bass-heavy vamping aren't effective in this setting, and even his raw bellow sounds restrained. Listening on headphones, I had to turn up the volume so high it almost hurt my ears just to get the full effect of the music. Even Below sounds uncharacteristically tentative--he actually seems to lose his shuffle rhythm at one point--and although the rest of the musicianship is solid, overall the effort on this song falls short.
There are moments on the disc when things jell, though. Below's sophisticated, swinging rhythms will take some getting used to for those who remember Applewhite's primal tub thumps, but Alabama Junior's work is magnificent throughout. Loping along in the pocket of the beat, he occasionally embellishes his patterns with off-rhythm accents and multinote fills.
"Man or Mouse," another longtime Slim favorite, features a sharper tone and a fuller sound--not the in-your-face onslaught of a vintage Slim performance but closer to the mark. Even at his most flamboyant here Slim remains resolutely bare bones, pouring on the emotional heat and articulating his ideas precisely rather than pouring on the notes and filling every empty space with noise. His solo quivers and screams, finally ascending into splintered glory as if joyously unleashed at last.
At that time Slim used to kick songs off too slowly and then speed up to a more appropriate tempo, perhaps to compensate for drummer Applewhite's tendency to accelerate. Below, a jazz-trained drummer with a somewhat intractable personality, apparently insisted that the tempo Slim started off with was the tempo he was stuck with. As a result some songs--especially "Country Girl"--drag noticeably.
But "Country Girl" succeeds nonetheless. The mix is sharp and Slim's voice is surprisingly gentle (to appreciate its full effect you have to visualize the massive Slim, face full of sneers, signifying at the men in the audience with leonine ferocity and then sliding into a love song). At 6:13 it's a bit long, but Slim's leads achieve a suppleness, rippling and bobbing over the slow-grinding backing, that builds into his trademark piercing intensity and climaxes with his single-finger tremolo.
Although he's a gentle man offstage, in performance Slim likes to affect the persona of a macho swaggerer, dangerous to men and uncompromisingly harsh with women; this misogynistic facade is usually redeemed by Slim's underlying self-deprecating sense of humor. That balance between threat and self-satire is evident in Slim's reworking of Rice Miller's "Help Me," which he delivers as a nonnegotiable demand rather than the usual lovesick plea. He works the entire fretboard with aplomb, although any given solo usually stays within a rather limited harmonic range; especially effective are his closing runs, hard-edged and demanding like his singing.
Willie Mabon's "I'm Mad" is a typical Mabon exercise in pointed irony, and Pettis takes over the vocals with gusto. The band grinds behind him, better mixed than on the previous songs, and Slim's "guitar bass"--heavy-fingered rhythm patterns on the bass strings of his guitar--pounds away alongside his brother Nick Holt's electric bass to create a powerful bottom. Pettis's leads are elemental but effective, and the combination of Slim and Holt driven by Below's backbeat is irresistible.
But despite the talent on display, Black & Blue's apparent insistence on hands-off "authenticity" hampers Slim. "The Sky Is Crying" is sloppy toward the beginning, and at 5:06 it drags; "Living in My Neighborhood" and "Tell Me Baby" are virtually the same song, with different lyrics but insufficient variation in arrangement and improvisational approach; both the opening cut ("Highway Is My Home") and the closing selection ("Something More") are overlong slow blues that despite moments of inspiration tend to meander--the old show-biz truism that your entrance and your exit are the most important parts of your show seems to have been forgotten.
Slide guitarist J.B. Hutto, who died in 1983, was even fiercer than Slim. When Slideslinger was recorded, in April of 1982, Hutto was already a sick man--in the late 70s diabetes and the death of his longtime drummer Frank Kirkland had even forced him to quit performing for a time. But his energy level on this disc seems virtually undiminished.
Hutto's raucous tone and full-steam-ahead sense of rollicking celebration distilled the elegant slide patterns of Robert Johnson and Elmore James to their essence. His repertoire of set pieces never seemed to grow stale. Yet beneath that high-energy, rocked-out image lay a surprisingly sensitive and worldly lyricist. Slideslinger gives us plenty of the classic Hutto abandon, but it also serves up some rare looks at the more introspective side of his personality.
Hutto was relentless; once during an appearance at Theresa's Lounge on the south side he strutted his stuff with such audacity that the usually mild-mannered house guitarist, Sammy Lawhorn, felt compelled to climb onto a table while playing, simply to reassert his dominance over his home turf. Some of that gladiatorial spirit comes through on this disc: from the opening cut, "I Feel So Good," Hutto wields his slide like a knife, cutting into your consciousness with the jagged ferocity of his sound.
Despite Black & Blue's too-pristine production, Hutto's roughshod back-alley enthusiasm comes through perfectly. He attacks his strings as if they were living things; second guitarist Steve Coveney's occasional solos spit raw-toned, splintered chords over Hutto's ragged comping.
Hutto used to say that most of his lyrics came from experience; if that's true, his life must have often felt like a Pigmeat Markham comedy routine. "Leave Your Love in Greater Hands" sounds like the title of an inspirational hymn; instead the song is a rough-and-ready variation on the "Dust My Broom" theme. Hutto sings a riotous tale about a coldhearted woman who caused him to go so broke that his electricity was cut off and he ended up sleeping on the cold floor with newspapers for his pillow: "Thanks for the house, girl / You could have burned it down just the same . . . / But I'll leave your love in greater hands." So much for spiritual inspiration!
"That's the Truth," another antic fable about infidelity and heartbreak, triumphs over drummer Leroy Pina's lackluster accompaniment; "Lula Belle's Here" scores a similar victory over Black & Blue's muted production. "Lula Belle" is a virtual showcase for the interplay between the guitarists: Coveney sounds as if he's trying to do to the Chuck Berry tradition what Hutto does to the Johnson/James slide heritage--take what's already a primal sound and strip it to its essence. Hutto tears off a few nonslide phrases, sputtering and chaotic, then launches into a glorious, upward-spiraling slide finale.
From out of nowhere, Hutto transforms himself from Lord of the Bacchanal to Bard of the Brokenhearted. The melting "My Heart Is Achin' to Love You" has a crudely poetic romanticism: "Dimples in your jaws are so large / They bring out beauty in the dark / Your smile is so embraceable / Makes my soul reel and rock." Hutto's elemental guitar work gives the song an edge; this is truly a love song of the common man, whose vulnerability is couched in the rough language of a romantic hardened by life.
"J.B.'s Crawl" is basically the instrumental version of "Please Help." Both begin with a clarionlike chord, then plunge into a rollicking 2/4 boogie. Hutto is dexterous on the slide solos, inserting multifinger single-note runs and modulating the intensity to keep things cooking evenly. At six-plus minutes, "Please Help" by rights should seem too long, but in truth the song only gives Hutto more of a showcase. His guitar solo weeps ecstatically, occasionally broadening into shimmering chords but mostly snaking through the octaves with bends and moans that evoke tears even at their most joyful.
The slow blues "Lone Wolf"--actually Funny Papa Smith's original "Howlin' Wolf" anthem from the 1930s--is also rather long at 6:03, but Hutto brings so much commitment to the tune that you hardly notice. Muddy Waters used to cover this song regularly, but Hutto makes it his own: where Muddy's slide patterns were smooth and elegant, Hutto cuts the phrases into splintered, fierce shards.
The most memorable song here, though, is "Angel Face," a soul-tearing illustration of the vulnerability and sensitivity lurking beneath Hutto's wildness. "Been a long time since I saw your angel face," Hutto sings while his guitar cries shimmering beneath him. "Seein' it again made me realize / I haven't found no one yet, girl, to take your place . . . / Shook your hand when I spoke to you / Even said my few words with a smile / But being that close to you, couldn't hold you, honey / Deep down inside, girl, I cried." In the final verse, Hutto delivers the clincher: "Not even you could love a diabetic man."
The two final cuts--Elmore James's "Look on Yonder Wall" (slightly retitled as "Look at the Yonder Wall") and Hutto's "Combination Boogie"--were never released, but they're hardly throwaways. These impeccably performed house rockers provide a fitting conclusion to a record that's full of kick-down-the-walls good times with some glittering jewels of poetic sensibility thrown in.