BIG JOE WILLIAMS: CLASSIC DELTA BLUES (1964)
1) Rollin' And Tumblin'; 2) Hellhound On My Trail; 3) Bird's Nest Bound; 4) Crossroads Blues; 5) Special Rider; 6) Pony Blues; 7) Pea Vine Special; 8) Walking Blues; 9) Dirt Road Blues; 10) Banty Rooster Blues; 11) Terraplane Blues; 12) Jinx Blues.
Far from the last «original» Big Joe Williams album (the man went on recording all through the 1970s, although the average pace was certainly less prolific), Classic Delta Blues will, nevertheless, be his last record to get a brief individual mention here. The ones that came after are way too hard to find these days, and the payoff cannot be imagined as substantial anyway.
The pleasure of Classic Delta Blues is mainly in that, after several years of being set up as part of a small blues combo, this time around Big Joe gets completely solo billing. He also switches to 6-string rather than his usual 9-string guitar, which might, in theory, look like he's downplaying his own special thing, but believe me, he is not. On the contrary, out of all of his post-war LPs, this one is the most authentically Big-Joe-ish record of them all.
Back in Chicago, Big Joe is consigned to the cares of engineer Norman Dayton and producer Pete Welding, who do the best thing possible in this situation: leave Big Joe completely alone and merely ensure that the captured sound be provided with some depth and a small echo layer, to get the proper «playing from inside a deep well» atmosphere. Combined with the fact that, for this session, Big Joe has selected to play almost exclusively the tunes of Charley Patton and Robert Johnson — blues' «tormented loners» par excellence — this makes up for cool results.
Fact is, Big Joe is overall a better blues singer (at least, certainly a scarier blues singer, at times, sounding like the direct predecessor to Howlin' Wolf) than both Johnson and Patton — as good as Robert's original 'Hellhound On My Trail' and 'Crossroads Blues' are, I can certainly see how some could think that the song deserves a deeper, more «hellish» vocal reading than Johnson's almost effeminate whine, and Big Joe's interpretation here suits the bill perfectly. And how wise of him, too, to have held off these recordings right until being left all alone in the studio, with no second fiddle to spoil the «just me and the devil» effect.
Simply put, some musicians are born for bands and some are born for nobody but themselves, and Classic Delta Blues explicitly shows that Big Joe is at his very best when no one is there to bug him about setting up a «party atmosphere». As classic as his recordings with such giants as Sonny Boy Williamson or Willie Dixon could be, he tends to wither up next to these guys. But give him some echo, a dark, personal-apocalyptic tune or two, and suddenly he turns into Mr. Deep Blues Incarnate. This is an exceptional LP — highly recommended. Thumbs up.
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