Formats: 2-CD set, MP3
Release date: June 10, 2016
Alligator Records started in 1971 as one man’s dream to record the Southside Chicago blues artists who packed a tiny venue called Florence’s. Bruce Iglauer, then working at Delmark Records, began his label with just one record per year and one employee—himself. In 1991 he released a 20th Anniversary Collection to commemorate the growth of his label to Grammy-award status. Robert Mugge’s film, Pride & Joy: The Story of Alligator Records, documented the promotional tour for that compilation, and an album of live performances from the tour was nominated for a Grammy Award.
Compilations followed for the 20th, 25th, 30th and 40th anniversaries, each compiling tracks from the label’s early days and pairing with newer material. Over the years the label added artists, including many from outside of the Chicago tradition, who were either dropped from other labels or were floundering after the demise of the 1960s blues revival. Still a small label, Alligator continues to produce several albums a year and has re-released albums acquired from other labels.
Iglauer’s introduction to the 45th Anniversary Collection sets this collection apart as a retrospective not of the entire backlist, but mainly of the artists who have recorded since the 2011 40th Anniversary album, plus select tracks by those who have died recently. The living and the dead are interspersed, but most of the current Alligator performers are on the first of the two disc set. Their tracks illustrate a vibrant tradition that still speaks to audiences around the world.
Disc One opens with a “house-rockin’” performance of “Hold That Train” by Lil’ Ed and the Imperials (2008). They invite the listener to “get on board … next stop: Chicago.” Since Alligator’s signature sound is “house-rockin’ music,” this track is a perfect choice to represent the label. “Cotton Picking Blues” (1973) by Son Seals (d. 2004) follows with a long, lugubrious electric guitar solo backed by organ, drums and bass that takes up much of the track. Having been cheated out of his share-cropping pay he has to “put it down.” This is the source of Chicago’s blues inheritance: musicians migrating from the Delta cotton fields to Chicago.
“Devil’s Hand” (2015) by Shemekia Copeland represents the present. The daughter of Johnny Copeland, she began recording for Alligator in 1998 at the age of 18. Tracks in the previous anniversary compilations find her sometimes struggling to compete with her horn section, but in “Devil’s Hand” her voice is robust and soulful, and the production gives her room to breathe. She has come into her own. “Can’t Even Do Wrong Right” (2015) by Elvin Bishop is a witty take on classic blues themes with the best line: “What goes on in the dark will surely come to light.” Toronzo Cannon’s “Bad Contract” (2016) is a funkalicious blues concoction with lyrics that echo the Son Seals’ track, but instead of being cheated by a farmer, Cannon gets burned by a pre-nuptial contract! Who wouldn’t sing the blues?
Harmonica maestro Charlie Musselwhite tells a true story of how the courage of Jessica McClure, the girl who fell into “The Well” (2010), inspired him to quit drinking and “to be a better man.” You might have to listen twice for the story though, because the harmonica solos overshadow everything else in the track. He is a true gift to the blues. Marcia Ball (2014) sings “The Tattooed Lady and the Alligator Man,” a boogie woogie song complete with a horn section and retro piano licks, telling the story of a pair of freak show performers.
In case you feared that civil rights music was a thing of the past, fear not. “Common Ground” (2015) by The Painkillers & Tommy Castro urges us to “stand together on common ground… everybody’s looking for someone to blame but we’re not as different as we are the same.” This mid-tempo gospel-tinged anthem tells us “It’s time to build a brand new day.” Preach it, Tommy! Carey Bell (d. 2007) & his son Lurrie Bell, sing “The Road Is So Long” (2004), an acoustic, Piedmont-inspired duo with Carey on harp and Lurrie on guitar. The track shows Alligator’s reach as well as some impressive instrumentals by the Bells.
Koko Taylor (d. 2009), Alligator’s vocal powerhouse for many years, penned a very southern “Voodoo Woman” (1975). She has a crawfish on her “shoulder, looking dead at you.” Rough and bare, backed by guitar and sax, you can believe her claim that she could make the sky begin to cry. “Don’t Call No Ambulance” (2013) is a hard-driving house-rockin’ song with a ripping horn section. Selwyn Birchwood’s gravelly voice would sound right at home on any Delta classic but has the driving force and powerful diction (yes, diction!) to hold his own against his funkelectric band. Birchwood burst onto the scene in 2013 but he is an old soul with much to say and many years ahead of him. “Don’t you call no ambulance—I’ll find my own ride home.” Oh yes, he would, and I bet he could also walk it if he had to!
Rick Estrin & The Nightcats “Callin’ All Fools” (2013) is a retro-mod song backed by organ, drums and guitar. Lorenzo Farrell’s organ solo is not to be missed. “Too Drunk to Drive Drunk” (2012) by Joe Louis Walker is a hard-driving song about not driving. This is one of the most unique tracks in the collection. Imagine if 1950s Jerry Lee Lewis had a baby with Stevie Ray Vaughan. “I know you mighta done it a million times before, but you ain’t driving outta here like this no more.” “Crazy When She Drinks”(2007) by Lee Rocker, former member of the Stray Cats, sounds a bit like his former group’s work, which isn’t a bad thing but isn’t core to the Alligator wheelhouse. The lyrics fit into a blues house, though: “It don’t make her happy – it just makes her mean.” She probably shouldn’t drive home, either.
“Take Me With You (When You Go),” from Aaron Moreland and Dustin Arbuckle’s 2016 debut album for Alligator, is roots house-rock that has them pulling out all the stops. “Your Turn to Cry” (1977), by Jimmy Johnson, is one of the few older songs by a living artist. Johnson, who is still alive and gigging at 87, lets the guitar do most of the crying but his powerful falsetto recalls the classic R&B artists of the 1950s while staying true to the blues. Texan Delbert McClinton’s “Giving It Up for Your Love” is from a live album recorded at Austin City Limits. It is a multi-tinged gumbo of roots rock styles with full horn section and no holds barred.
Hound Dog Taylor (d. 1975) and the Houserockers were the band that inspired Iglauer to start the Alligator label. “Take Five” (1974) is hard-driving house-rock song that’s light on lyrics and heavy on bottleneck guitar. “Gotta go… gotta go…. sure ‘nuff … baby.” It’s easy to imagine this quickie (2:42) as a prelude to a bathroom break or a rockin’ closer after a long night at Florence’s. New Orleans’ Anders Osborne’s “Let It Go” (2013) is a plea to give up drugs, with references to psychedelic sounds of the 1960s in the incessant driving rhythm and soaring guitar solos. There’s no resolution, just sinking deeper into a quagmire of hypnotic sounds. According to the notes, Osborne has overcome his troubles but they clearly left a soulfully felt scar. Mavis Staples sings “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” (2004) to a croaking bass harmonica (that sometimes sounds like a didjeridoo) and slide guitar. Inspired to resume her career after the events of 9/11, this track points to her bright future.
Disc 2 opens with “Cotton Mouth Man” (2013) by James Cotton, featuring Joe Bonamassa, and includes the line “The Blues cannot be killed!” What a great track to open a disc that includes many deceased artists.
Recorded live in Tokyo, “If Trouble was Money” (1982) by Albert Collins shows off his guitar virtuosity from the start in this long, languid lament that also features a fabulous sax solo by A.C. Reed. “99 Shades of Crazy” (2013), by J.J. Grey & Mofro, is funkified “roots rock” with a horn section and organ. The song is great dark-edged fun that crosses too many boundaries to fit into one category. Jarekus Singleton sings “I Refuse to Lose” (2014) while his guitar sings like B.B. King’s Lucille. Adding organ and heavy drums makes this a good pairing with the previous track. Singleton is new to the blues scene and this anthem of hard work and determination predicts a long and successful future. Though sounding like B.B. King is a great thing, he will doubtless take that sound to a new level using his own voice.
Next comes “Empty Promises” (2008) by Michael Burks. Nobody would blame you for thinking this was a classic from the 1960s. It’s one part soul-blues and one part acid-blues-rock. Burks’ voice has the richness of classic singers of that era and the guitar solos are worthy of a Woodstock revival. If Jimi Hendrix were alive he’d be flattered. Sadly, Burks died in 2012, making this song an ironic salute to a great talent. Johnny Winter is another lost soul (d. 2014). He recorded three albums with Alligator in the 1980s and “Shake Your Moneymaker” (1986) was featured on the final release. Winter rocks some impressive bottleneck guitar playing on this James Cotton tune and croaks out the lyrics like a battle-scarred blueser.
“Walk a Mile in My Blues,” (2016) is sung by Washington-born Curtis Salgado, who mentored John Belushi. Having beat cancer three times he has a right to sing the blues. His voice is emotional and rich, with no hint of any infirmity, yet wizened enough to sing the blues with authority. He won the 36th Soul Blues Male Artist award (2015), and sounds like he’ll be adding to his trophy case for years to come. “Stumblin’” (recorded in 2003; remastered in 2015), by the Kentucky Headhunters, is a fun-loving drunken ramble that could be featured in any honky-tonk or roadhouse blues venue. Johnnie Johnson (d. 2005), who was Chuck Berry’s piano player, guested on this track, which didn’t make it onto an album until Alligator released it in 2015. “I Ain’t Got You” (1995), by Billy Boy Arnold, is a 1950s-style boogie woogie that Arnold first recorded in 1955. His harmonica sets the song apart from the pop genres of that time and gives it legs.
The 12th track slows the pace with smoky-voiced Ann Rabson’s “Gonna Stop You from Giving Me the Blues” (1997). Sadly, she died in 2013. Alone and as part of Safire: Uppity Blues Women, Rabson recorded solely with Alligator. As a soloist she shows a Krall-ish side of the blues, a counterpoint full-throated singers Koko Taylor and Shemekia Copeland. “Freezer Burn” (2010), by Bnois King & Smokin’ Joe Kubek (d. 2015), is a rockin’ instrumental, filled with soulful guitar riffs, leaving us to grieve for Kubek’s guitar voice. Following is “I’m Gonna Leave You” (2004), a classic woman-done-me-wrong lament written and performed by Guitar Shorty. The lyrics don’t quite versify but they do testify, because that’s just how bad that woman is. If you love old-time blues, this track is one of the best on the album. “She’s Fine” by A.C. Reed (d. 2004, tenor sax) and Bonnie Raitt (voice & slide guitar), is a slow moving tribute to the blues. Recorded live, “Will It Ever Change?” (1997) by Luther Allison (d. 1997), decries discrimination—unfortunately, a message that appears to be timeless. “I can see the bells of freedom, but why can’t I hear them ring?” is a haunting lyric that rings true today.
“Amazing Grace” (2013) by the Holmes Brothers closes out the collection. Two of the three members died in 2015, leaving this, their signature song, as their own memorial on this collection. You’ll never hear “Amazing Grace” the same way again. Once again, Alligator Records and Bruce Iglauer have encapsulated the best of the blues in their latest anniversary release. We can only hope there will be many more.
Reviewed by Amy Edmonds