Sunday, June 26, 2016

Various Artists – Blues for Big Walter | Album Review

Various Artists – Blues for Big Walter

EllerSoul Records

16 tracks / 76:00

The use of harmonica in blues music owes a big debt to Big Walter Horton, who helped define the harp sound that we still hear today. Big Walter passed on back in 1981, which was way too soon, and to honor him and his contributions, Li’l Ronnie Owens (also no slouch on the harmonica) put together a cool tribute disc that includes nine harp players running down sixteen cool tracks. There is a little bit of everything on Blues for Big Walter, and recording took place on two continents over the course of three decades.

Besides Owens, on this production you will hear Kim Wilson, Mark Hummel, Bob Corritore, Sugar Ray Norcia, Steve Guyger, Mark Wenner, Kurt Crandall, and Andrew Alli. Each of these guys has a great sense of history and incredible talent, making this a very special project. As an added bonus, backing them are dozens of incredible musicians, including Anthony Geraci, Bob Welsh, Robert Lockwood Jr., Big Jon Atkinson, and many more. This was a labor of love, as the artists performed for free, and proceeds of sale go towards two fine blues charities: The Blues Foundation and the Handy Artists Relief Fund (H.A.R.T).

There are both studio and live recordings, acoustic and electric arrangements, and a lot of different sounds and feels. For example, “Easy” is covered twice here, with Mark Hummel and Andrew Alli each having a different take on it. Hummel went for a full band, while Alli kept it down to a more simple arrangement with just an acoustic guitar for accompaniment. Each version is wonderful, but variety is the spice of life and these guys deliver the goods. It is not possible to run down each of the other sixteen tracks, but a few of them really stood out for me:

”She Loves Another Man” showcases the hard-working Bob Corritore on harmonica and the late Jimmy Rogers on vocals and guitar. This is Chicago blues at its finest, and Bob’s understated harmonica work fits in perfectly. His phrasing and sense of space complement this song perfectly, which is what Hornton brought to the projects he worked on. Big Walter was the ultimate sideman!

”Sugar Ray Medley” is the showpiece of “Blues for Big Walter,” an 18-minute track that includes “That Ain’t It,” “Walter’s Boogie,” “Everybody’s Fishing,” “I Don't Get Around Much,” and “Blueberry Hill.” A lot of thought and practice went into this medley, as the individual songs blend seamlessly into each other and have an amazing balance. And, of course, Sugar Ray Norcia nails the vocals and harp parts; he is simply a joy to listen to.

Finally, the album closes up with ”Think Big,” a live version that was cut by Li’l Ronnie with Terry Garland on guitar in at the Canal Club back in 2009. Owen’s harp is crystal clear and takes a nice leading role over Garland’s acoustic guitar. It is cool to finish up with a bare-bones instrumental that features the harmonica up front for this very special compilation.

If you are a fan of blues harmonica or Chicago style blues, Blues for Big Walter is a must buy. Rumor has it that there were many more artists that were interested in participating, but there just was not enough room on the disc (it comes in at 75 minutes), so there might be a volume 2 coming up. So, keep your fingers crossed and check in with the Ellersoul website for updates.

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