BIG MAMA THORNTON: IN EUROPE (1966)
1) Swing It On Home; 2) Sweet Little Angel; 3) Little Red Rooster; 4) Unlucky Girl; 5) Hound Dog; 6) My Heavy Load; 7) School Boy; 8) Down-Home Shakedown; 9) Your Love Is Where It Ought To Be; 10) Session Blues.
The «American Folk Blues Festival», regularly held in various European locations from 1962 to 1966, was a fine thing not just for European audiences, most of which had never seen «authentic blues in action» before, but for the performers themselves as well — lots of people who'd never catch the proper opportunity to get together and work on something collective in their native homeland now, all of a sudden, had the chance to pool their talents overseas.
Big Mama's first ever LP release is one of the finest manifestations of that opportunity. In between the Peacock years and this mid-Sixties «European revival», she'd lost none of the power or the spirit, but now, instead of the Johnny Otis band, which was never really a proper match for her, she is backed by such giants of the trade as slide guitar master Mississippi Fred McDowell, piano wiz Eddie Boyd, Little Walter's drummer Fred Below, harmonica king Big Walter Horton, and a young and fiery Buddy Guy on electric guitar.
Obviously, this mixed backing is not very much a unified «team» (having Big Walter and Buddy Guy play on the same tracks is somewhat of a novelty thing), but it still makes for exciting listening, and the players take good care not to overshadow Big Mama — this is a Willie Mae album first and foremost. She also throws in some of her extra talents, never evident in the Fifties, such as occasional drumming and harmonica playing: 'Down-Home Shakedown' is a cool duet between herself and Big Walter, on which she more than stands up to the contest.
Vocals still take precedence, naturally, and, with reverential support from Buddy, Mama gives us a fairly sexy 'Little Red Rooster' (punctuated by naturalistic imitations of all the animals mentioned in the lyrics, no less); an inspired 'Sweet Little Angel' which she models after the B. B. King version and, IMHO, sings with more expression than B. B. himself; and a fine-rocking remake of 'Hound Dog' that trades in guitar solos for harmonica ones, yet still holds together more tightly than the original.
Of special note are several tracks recorded away from the band, with only Fred McDowell backing Willie Mae on slide guitar; 'My Heavy Load' is the particular highlight, five centuries of toil and trouble converted into five minutes of deep Delta blues. This is the kind of material that Big Mama never got to record at the peak of her popularity, being marketed as, above all, a rowdy-bawdy entertainer with a big-band style — unsurprisingly, she is just as good at it as she is at barking off male losers in her classic hits.
In Europe is available in many different editions, including tons of bonus tracks (I am listing the shortest original one), sometimes also paired with select tracks (or even the entirety of?) the sessions recorded with the Muddy Waters Band; whichever one you happen to track down will work. This is an absolute must for anyone with at least a modest interest in blues history or rootsy music in general — mind you, this is not just some old has-been re-recording his/her former classics with better sound quality and worse authenticity, this is a strong, diverse record showing a still flourishing talent from several different sides, only a few of which we had previous access to. A strong, excited thumbs up here.
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