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Monday, July 23, 2012

Blind Willie McTell: Atlanta Twelve String


1) Kill It Kid; 2)    The Razor Ball; 3) Little Delia; 4) Broke Down Engine Blues; 5) Dying Crapshooter's Blues; 6) Pinetop's Boogie Woogie; 7) Blues Around Midnight; 8) Last Dime Blues; 9) On The Cooling Board; 10) Motherless Children Have A Hard Time; 11) I Got To Cross The River Jordan; 12) You Got To Die; 13) Ain't It Grand To Live A Christian; 14) Pearly Gates; 15) Soon This Morning.

Willie's post-war recordings, typically for most acoustic blues performers who peaked in the 1930s, were few; only two session periods are generally known, one of which, from 1949, is well represented on this album (as a single LP, it was released already in 1972), all of the songs having been recorded for the newly-formed Atlantic label, but only a couple of them released at the ori­ginal time of recording.

The good news: since the label was Atlantic and the year was 1949, this is the cleanest, sharpest-sounding McTell album of them all. If you cannot stand hiss or crackle, Atlanta Twelve String is your safest bet for assessing McTell's playing style — particularly convenient since he remem­bers to re-record some of his biggest hits (ʽBroke Down Engineʼ, ʽRazor Ballʼ) before heading off into the barroom / gospel blues directions that he already tried to popularize in 1940.

The bad news is that his voice continues to show signs of serious weathering. Still expressive, but seriously lower than it used to be, it no longer has that unique youthfulness of old, yet at the same time is not gruff and rough enough to compete with the Ruffled Old Bluesman image of his peers. As for the playing, it is still precise and technical, but after the rousing opener (ʽKill-It-Kidʼ), he does not do any more ragtime numbers, and some of his tricks are not represented here at all — you will still have to search for the likes of ʽGeorgia Ragʼ to appreciate the man's full potential.

Still, at least one of the tracks here is utterly wonderful — ʽPinetop's Boogie Woodieʼ, a musical / vocal guide to a traditional dance; not because it is particularly complex or emotional, it just got the spirit, sounding like a little time capsule back to the age where you could be taught your dance moves by an old black guy with a guitar. But yeah, that old black guy does do a beautiful sprinkly-chimy guitar move at the end of each round.

There are a couple extra Blind Willie Johnson tributes here (ʽMotherless Childrenʼ), and some stately solemn gospel anthems (ʽPearly Gatesʼ), but they are not as successful. For all the diversi­ty of his interests, McTell was a playful performer, and whenever his performance lacks playful­ness, it inevitably loses out to competition. In a way, he was doomed by his own age — as he got more and more «mature», he was drifting into all these «serious» genres where he did not have as much competence. "She's a real kind mama, lookin' for another man" is, and will always be, as great as Willie McTell ever gets, and these 1949 sessions, unfortunately, have very few such songs. Not that there are any downright bad performances, though — and, like I said, the very fact that this is the only «clean» recording from the man that one is ever going to get automatical­ly makes it eligible for a modest thumbs up.

Check "Atlanta Twelve String" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Atlanta Twelve String" (MP3) on Amazon

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