various artists,
From Clarksdale to Heaven:
Remembering John Lee Hooker

(Blue Storm, 2002)

Long before his death in 2001, bluesman John Lee Hooker had become one of the Top 10 figures in African American blues. Arguably, he might very well be among the Top 3. Accordingly, his songs and music had a profound impact on American blues, rock and roots artists. His influence bridged barriers between electric and acoustic proponents of the form. His acoustic masterpieces like "Crawlin' Kingsnake" are as highly regarded among rockers as electric songs such as "Boom Boom" and "Dimples" -- and rightfully so.

However, with the exception of Savoy Brown, the Animals and a few others, when one thinks of British blues groups of London's 1960s "Blues Boom," one associates the movement with such stateside forefathers as Jimmy Reed, Albert, B.B. and Freddie King, Bill Broonzy, Howlin' Wolf, Otis Spann and Sonny Boy Williamson. Blue Storm's From Clarksdale to Heaven therefore comes as a pleasant surprise: a CD featuring some of the most prominent figures from the 65-'69 Marquee Club blues scene, paying tribute to the master of the boogie.

Ten of the 14 songs on the CD were recorded in England, with individual sessions produced by such luminaries as Ollan Christopher-Bell and former Cream lyricist Pete Brown. To fill out the package, executive producer Arnie Goodman also secured rights to performances by John Lee's daughter Zakiya, legendary pianist Johnnie Johnson and Greg Anton's fine San Francisco rock ensemble, Gregg's Eggs, as well as a previously unreleased Hooker track: a version of Jimi Hendrix's "Red House" played with the unlikely but winning combination of Randy California and Booker T. Jones.

Unlike many such tribute projects, this CD has its fair share of triumphs: Jack Bruce teams up with former BBM bandmate Gary Moore for two selections. Their "In the Mood" is a measured, sometimes sloppy, but thoroughly emotive reading of the song. Vocally, Bruce masterfully nails the nuances of Hooker's baritone menace without coming off as a copyist. Moore delivers a tube-melting lead guitar break, typically fleet-fingered and short on gear-changes but gripping nonetheless, appropriately recalling the long-missed ghost of 1968-era Eric Clapton. Later, the combo's take on "Serve Me right to Suffer" is heartfelt but slightly less successful, as Moore takes over vocal chores. Still, it's nice to hear the men outside the context of the Cream-derived pyrotechnics of BBM.

A regular fixture to tribute projects, guitar wizard Jeff Beck contributes two songs: "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" with singers Siggi Josiah, Earl Green and the Kingdom Choir and "Hobo Blues, again with Green. A student of religious vocal harmony music, Beck interweaves careening guitar runs and swooping bottleneck cries with rich southern harmonies of the choir. "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" is especially effective, with the otherwise splendid "Hobo Blues" suffering due to the fact that Beck's guitar is distractlingly loud in the mix.

Other fine performances abound: John Mayall/Rolling Stones alumnist Mick Taylor joins Jeff Beck Group keyboard man Max Middleton on "This Is Hip." While his voice ain't much, Taylor proves why he is regarded as one of the best slide players that the UK has ever produced. Middleton provides some exceptionally rollicking Otis Spann-style barrelhouse piano.

However, the surprise star of the London sessions and the most effective unit by far is a combo featuring Procol Harum singer/keyboard man Gary Brooker, the criminally underrated guitarist and vocalist Andy Fairweather-Low, and Eric Clapton band drummer Henry Spinetti. Brooker's vocals on the samba-style "Baby Lee" are the most chillingly true to the spirit of Hooker's own music. Fairweather-Low delivers a thoroughly blues approved lead, bare fingers snapping and popping the guitar strings in a very un-British manner. The group is back for "Little Wheel," with young bassist Matt Pegg slaming the group into the pocket with some nimble, rolling fretwork. If this entire CD had been played by this group and only this group, no one who heard it would have felt cheated. (In other words, do the world a favor and give us an entire album of this kind of stuff, lads. And do it soon.)

Like Hooker's own discography, the CD features its share of low spots: eternal Brit blues fixture T.S. McPhee of the Groundhogs makes the unwise choice of allowing former John Mayall Band sax player Dick Heckstall-Smith to share the studio for "Ground Hog Blues" and "I'm Leaving." While McPhee's vocals are a bit overly enthusiastic, his acoustic guitar playing is quite good. However, any of his strengths are drowned by Heckstall-Smith's hurtful, high school jazz band quality bleats and blats. However, the collection's most distressing performance by far comes courtesy American Stevie Ray Vaughn-a-be guitarist Vince Converse. Things are only made worse by the fact that he is assisted by two favorite Brit blues players, Leo Lyons and Chick Churchill of Ten Years After. Their take on "Bad Like Jesse James" comes off like a trio of 12-year-olds who've snuck into the garage with daddy's Fostex Portastudio and a bottle of vodka. To call the production of "lo-fi" or the musicianship "loose" would be far too complimentary.

Luckily, we have the CD's "extra tracks" to put things back in the groove. Zakiya Hooker does daddy proud and kicks off the disc with a wonderful version of "I Want To Hug You." Gregg's Eggs (a San Francisco group formed by Zero drummer Greg Anton) provides the original "The Business" with lyrics penned by Grateful Dead's Robert Hunter. The song would sound out of place on the CD if it wasn't so damned good. Hunter and Anton originally composed "The Business" for John Lee Hooker in 2001. However, Hooker died before it could be recorded. (By all means, look up the band's self-titled 2001 album, which was one of the best-played, best-sounding jam band/fusion releases of the year).

The CD closes with the "lost" Hooker version of "Red House," originally composed by Jimi Hendrix -- a guitarist, composer and vocalist who was in many ways John Lee's LSD-infused spiritual son. The song was one of Hooker's favorite blues tunes, and one that he had long intended to record. The fact that the talented Hendrix protege, the late Randy California of Spirit, also plays on the track makes it all the more bittersweet. It's a roaring take on the Hendrix classic, a father paying tribute to one of his cherished offspring, and at the end we hear Hooker call to the control room for an immediate playback. It's good to know that he felt pleased with the take. Tribute or no, he probably would have dug this album, too.

- Rambles
written by Timothy Truman
published 1 March 2003

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