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Monday, March 31, 2014

Bukka White: Memphis Hot Shots

BUKKA WHITE: MEMPHIS HOT SHOTS (1968)

1) Bed Spring Blues; 2) Aberdeen Mississippi Blues; 3) Drifting Blues; 4) (Brand New) Decoration Blues; 5) Baby Please Don't Go; 6) Give Me An Old, Old Lady; 7) Got Sick And Tired; 8) World Boogie; 9) School Learning; 10) Old Man Tom; 11) Gibson Town.

A major misstep here. As the 1960s wore on and Bukka made more and more public appearances, he saw that the «proper» way to go for most folks was with a backing band, and opted for one of his own. The results, released on Mike Vernon's blues-oriented Blue Horizon label, were not too good — nowhere near as ridiculous as the album cover (we do not even know if it is Bukka him­self in the space suit, but who cares? would it cease to be ridiculous if we knew for sure it ain't him?), but fairly dull all the same.

I do not know any of the players — no big surprise, considering that some of them are hiding behind pseudonyms, such as «Anchor» on bass and «Harmonica Boy» on guess-what, and that the actual level of musicianship is utterly pedestrian, slightly above high school level, perhaps, but not even on the level of a third-rate British Invasion R&B band. Apparently, the intent is to try and recreate some sort of Chicago blues atmosphere, with a suitably swampy studio attitude, to match the achievements of Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf, but the only person who'd want to seriously compare «Harmonica Boy» with Little Walter would be a person who never heard one note played by Little Walter.

Worse still, Bukka himself is trying to get into the same pattern — howling, screaming, and roar­ing in prime Chicago fashion instead of retaining his trademark cotton field mumble that he inhe­rited from Charley Patton. It's okay, but it just ain't him: it's a rather pale copy of the Howlin' Wolf approach. It's as if John Lennon suddenly decided to become Bruce Springsteen, or Mick Jagger suddenly decided to become Sting, just because they happened to sell more at the time. The plus side here is that this also brings about a huge change of the repertoire: other than a couple perennial oldies, most of the songs here are new, with titles that I do not recognize (were they actually made up on the spot?) and melodies mostly taken from classic Chicago blues re­cordings. The minus side is — why exactly do I need to hear this?

The best material here is strictly solo: the band takes a break on ʽDrifting Bluesʼ and several other tunes, leaving Bukka alone (or, at most, with a second acoustic guitarist) to exorcise his demons. The vocals are still somewhat inadequate, with too much forced Wolf-style gargling, but at least the lack of inferior musical backing is refreshing, and it becomes easier to assess the amount of sincerity and genuine passion in the man's presence. And, honestly, he just does not seem to be in the right state of mind doing this thang — I count this as a misguided experiment from top to bot­tom and give it a thumbs down, although blues historians will probably want to own Memphis Hot Shots all the same, if only as an example of a curious, one-of-a-kind configuration. Not that old bluesmen didn't have their fair share of embarrassing misses, but they were all embarrassing in their own idiosyncratic embarrassing ways. At the very least, I don't recall Mississippi John Hurt or Skip James dressing in space suits, that's for sure.

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