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Monday, March 8, 2010

Bessie Smith: Complete Recordings Vol. 3


CD I: 1) Red Mountain Blues; 2) Golden Rule Blues; 3) Lonesome Desert Blues; 4) Them Has Been Blues; 5) Squeeze Me; 6) What's The Matter Now; 7) I Want Every Bit Of It; 8) Jazzbo Brown From Memphis Town; 9) The Gin House Blues; 10) Money Blues; 11) Baby Doll; 12) Hard Driving Papa; 13) Lost Your Head Blues; 14) Hard Time Blues; 15) Honey Man Blues; 16) One And Two Blues; 17) Young Woman's Blues; 18) Preachin' The Blues; 19) Backwater Blues; 20) After You've Gone; 21) Alexander's Ragtime Band; CD II: 1) Muddy Water (A Mis­sis­sip­pi Moan); 2) There'll Be A Hot Time In The Old Town Tonight; 3) Trombone Cholly; 4) Send Me To The 'Lectric Chair; 5) Them's Graveyard Words; 6) Hot Spring Blues; 7) Sweet Mistreater; 8) Lock And Key; 9) Mean Old Bed Bug Blues; 10) Homeless Blues; 11) Looking For My Man Blues; 12) Dyin' By The Hour; 13) Foolish Man Blues; 14) Thinking Blues; 15) Pickpocket Blues; 16) I Used To Be Your Sweet Mama; 17) I'd Rather Be Dead And Buried In My Grave; 18) I'd Rather Be Dead And Buried In My Grave (alt. take).

Heard from the perspective of our utterly spoiled modern-day ears that quickly get tired of repe­tition, Vol. 3, covering Bessie's years of prime glam and luxury, is somewhat of an intuitive let­down; but from the perspective of contemporary audiences, there is hardly even one small sign here that Ms. Smith might somehow be «losing it». After all, her voice and emotional force are going as strong as ever, and her backing players are still the top of the crop — when you have Fletcher Henderson, Coleman Hawkins, and James P. Johnson all delighted to back the lady, you know her fortunes have not changed much.

But in terms of classic individual performances, Vol. 3 does not add much to what we already know. The first disc is livened up by occasional dance numbers, such as 'Jazzbo Brown From Memphis Town' and the energetic performance of the classic 'Alexander's Ragtime Band', where Hawkins, Joe Smith, and Henderson fight it out in the background while Bessie shouts it out as if her own salary drastically depended upon her being able to draw as many neighbours as possible to the vir­tues of Alexander's Rag­time Band (well, in a way, it was). But the second half is much more subdued, and, to a large extent, dominated by second- and third-rate songs that do not de­serve special mention (except for such trivia bits as Bessie being, once in a while, backed by gui­tar rather than piano, e. g., 'Mean Old Bed Bug Blues' — but, unfortunately, the player is no Lon­nie Johnson and no Blind Lemon).

Well-recognized classics would likely include 'The Gin House Blues', the first of Bessie's auto­biographical relays of her troubled relations with alcohol; 'After You've Gone', with a big band arrangement and an intentionally epic feel, as Bessie fulfills the relatively easy task of oblitera­ting Marion Harris' original by injecting realism and power into the recording; and the even more anthemic 'Muddy Water (A Mississippi Moan)' — no realism here to speak of, because the «Chattanooga gal» hardly ever set foot in the Delta (then again, neither did John Fogerty, and that is no reason to turn down 'Proud Mary' or 'Green River'), however, her goal is not to recreate any kind of swampy atmosphere, but rather to use the lyrics as a general metaphor for the idea of being proud of one's home and homeland, wherever and whatever that is, and she makes it into one of the stateliest performances of her entire career. The final outburst — 'My heart cries out for muddy water!' — is unforgettable.

A minor half-funny, half-sad oddity that also deserves to be singled out is 'Send Me To The 'Lec­tric Chair', departing from the general blues structure and featuring one of the most repetitive choruses in history, with Bessie repeating 'judge, judge, please Mr. Judge' in the same robotic manner for about thirty times or so, weirdly contrasting with the far more expressive verse melody where she explains that 'I had my knife and went insane, and the rest you ought to know'. Hardly a classic, but definitely a bizarre stand-out in a collection that, for the modern listener at least, threatens to render one of the most impressive blues performers in history less and less im­pressive with each following track.

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