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Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Animals: With Sonny Boy Williamson


1) Sonny's Slow Walk; 2) Pontiac Blues; 3) My Babe; 4) I Don't Care No More; 5) Baby Don't You Worry; 6) Night Time Is The Right Time; 7) I'm Gonna Put You Down; 8) Fattening Frogs For Snakes; 9) Nobody But You; 10) Bye Bye, Sonny, Bye Bye; 11) Coda; 12) Let It Rock; 13) Gotta Find My Baby; 14) Bo Diddley; 15) Almost Grown; 16) Dimples; 17) Boom Boom; 18) C Jam Blues.

This record exists in many forms and varieties — the negative flipside of the lack of proper copy­right — but the 18-track one is probably the most comfortable, even if also the least true, since the last seven tracks, in fact, have nothing to do with Sonny Boy Williamson. But what all of this stuff does have in common is that everything was recorded sometime in late 1963, live at the Club A Go-Go in Newcastle, the Animals' principal stronghold at the time. Fairly surprisingly, the sound quality is very good — all the instruments are well discernible, and, since the audience probably consists of rowdy, but self-preserved coal miners instead of orgasming teenage girls, Eric's singing is not impeded by extraneous noises to the point that he cannot hear himself.

As for Sonny Boy Williamson II, he was an excellent and even innovative bluesman in his own right, and his touring in the UK, along the same lines as that of Muddy or Big Bill Broonzy, did a lot to popularize black music and, eventually, replace it with black-sounding white music. But it must be duly noted that, while performing, he had this nasty habit of jamming the whole length of his harmonica way deep down his throat, making it possible for him to punctuate the right notes with his uvula. This gave him a unique, inimitable sound — the only drawback was that, most of the time, he did not have the time to push it back whenever it was necessary to sing. Therefore, if you lack access to Sonny's records, but are nevertheless interested in his manner of performing, it is advisable to stuff a big chunk of wood or rock in your mouth and try to sing some generic 12-bar material in this condition. For additional authenticity, it is also recommended to knock appro­ximately half of your teeth out before proceeding.

If this sounds a little exaggerated and offensive, my only excuse is that it at least makes the pro­position seem somewhat interesting. Because otherwise, there is no point whatsoever in being in­terested in this kind of collaboration. Sonny Boy sounds better on the original studio recordings anyway, and the Animals, when backing him, sound exactly like your average backing band, with Price alone occasionally trying out some extra organ flourishes and Burdon probably sleeping it out backstage. Things get a little hotter on the duets, such as the lengthy rave-up of 'Nobody But You' (same as 'Talkin' 'Bout You', actually), but only because Sonny Boy is mostly absent from there, only coming in for a few seconds to trade some lines with Burdon — who, in his turn, is very busy ad-libbing stuff about Sonny Boy being the king of the blues and all.

As for the band's own set (sometimes found separately under the title In The Beginning), it is pretty well smoking hot. The vocal harmonies aren't worth shit (particularly on those songs that really really need them, e. g. Chuck Berry's 'Almost Grown'), but there is plenty of energy and good will throughout, and I am especially struck by how big Hilton Valentine's presence is on here — he is playing lots of sharp, hard-rocking solos in a very fluent and «mature» manner that somewhat reminds me of Keith Richards' typical stage playing about six or seven years later on. Very raw, dirty, with plenty of rock'n'roll feeling: the Berry numbers rock harder than anything the studio Animals produced in their original years.

The album's primary value is historical, of course, but it does give one a somewhat different facet of the Animals than the ones we are used to, and no fan of early British R'n'B should stay away from it. As a first acquaintance with Sonny Boy, it does not work at all — please do not let it dis­courage you from exploring his classic Chess singles — but as a farewell glance at the original Animals, it provides a convincing last-time ass-kicking. Thumbs up.

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