Friday, September 16, 2011

YouTube Blues #2 - Scenes from the American Folk Blues Festival

Unfortunately, things have been busy lately, so I have had little spare time to put things together.  Actually, I have two or three posts that I've started, but haven't completed yet that we will see down the road.  This week, however, we will just sit back and check out some of the many blues videos that YouTube has to offer.  I have to say that YouTube is a wonderful thing and has given us access to many songs and videos that we might otherwise have never seen.  I really enjoy just roaming around seeing what I can find.  Of course, I'm sure that someone will finally realize what a great concept YouTube is, and then proceed to screw it up for everyone who enjoys it.  Before they do, let's take a look at some choice blues videos.

All of these videos come from the series of DVDs capturing the highlights of the American Folk Blues Festival, an annual concert series in Germany that ran throughout the 60's.  Times were tough for bluesmen in the U.S. during this time, so these concerts opened up the musicians to a whole new fanbase that really appreciated what they were doing.  Some of the bluesmen liked it so much that they ended up staying in Europe for many years.  If you are not familiar with these DVDs, the clips we're showing here should give you enough of a taste to check out the series for yourselves.  Just about everybody who was anybody in the blues made an appearance at this festival at one time or another.  You will have the opportunity to see many blues legends in action like you've never seen them before.  

Saying Little Walter Jacobs was an innovator is sort of like saying the Titanic was a big boat.  He revolutionized the harmonica by using the recently discovered science of amplification to expand the possibilities of the instrument far beyond what was previously done, making it more of a solo instrument than the usual accompanying instrument that it had been.  Though he started out playing in Muddy Waters' band, his own fame and success soon eclipsed that of his former boss as he enjoyed a string of R&B hits in the 50's, and played on many of Chess Records' recordings for other artists.  Unfortunately, Little Walter was given to drink and had a notoriously short temper, which in the late 50's, soon alienated him from everyone and made it difficult for him to remain successful.  He eventually died in early 1968 after a street fight, but his legacy continues as you see the list of artists influenced by him...pioneers like Junior Wells, James Cotton, Charlie Musselwhite, Carey Bell, Big Walter Horton, Paul Butterfield, and John Popper.  There is very little footage of Little Walter in action, all of it was captured during the American Folk Blues Festival tours of the 60's...a pair with Jacobs backing Hound Dog Taylor and Koko Taylor, and one with him working solo.  From 1967, here's Little Walter backing Hound Dog Taylor on "Wild About You Baby."

I love to watch these old videos because in my mind's eye, even though I've never seen a lot of artists play, I have pictured what they looked like for the most they played, how they sang, etc... These videos opened my eyes up to my favorite musicians.  Another one I had never seen perform was T-Bone Walker.  As pointed out several months ago on this blog, Walker was an innovator of his own, taking the electrification of the guitar, and expanding the possibilities and potential of the instrument to places previously unimagined, and influencing a boatload of guitarists (B. B. King, Albert King, Jimi Hendrix, SRV, and Eric Clapton) in the process.  As you can see from the video, Walker held his guitar at nearly a 90 degree angle from his body when he played.....something you probably wouldn't really understand unless you'd seen him do it.  While there are several videos of Walker on YouTube, this one, also from the festival, is one of my favorites because you really get the opportunity to see Walker play guitar as only he did it.  If you've followed FBF for awhile, you've seen this one, but it's good enough to take a second look.

Sam "Lightnin'" Hopkins was another legendary performer who influenced others.  The Texas-based guitarist left a huge catalog of recordings, both electric and acoustic.  His recordings for Herald in the 50's are the stuff of legend, but nearly everything he recorded is worth hearing.  He was a gifted, nimble-fingered guitarist and his songs, often made up on the spot, were always memorable.  Hopkins got his start in the blues as a teenager in the 20's, serving as a guide for the legendary Blind Lemon Jefferson.  He later worked with Texas Alexander, and with piano man Wilson "Thunder" Smith (which led to the formation of Lightnin's nickname).  Despite those exciting Herald recordings, Hopkins faded into obscurity in the late 50's, until he was rediscovered as a folk blues artist.  His career took off once again and he never looked back, recording prolifically until his death in 1982.  Here's Hopkins rocking the house at the AFBF in 1964, playing "Mojo Hand."

For years, there was little video footage of Otis Rush, but in the past decade, a lot of performances have sprung up, including an 80's appearance at the Monterrey Jazz Festival (with Clapton and Luther Allison) and a couple of other concert DVDs.  This appearance from the American Folk Blues Festival, circa 1964, is one of his best and most intense.  Though he's unable to perform since his stroke several years ago, there are plenty of recordings and DVDs of his music to be heard and seen these days.  Rush was also a subject of a post here several months ago, so for more details, check that post out here.  Here's Rush, introduced by Roosevelt Sykes, playing "I Can't Quit You Baby."

A couple more before we go......Skip James has been covered pretty extensively here at FBF.  He also ventured overseas to the festival in the mid 60's.  James' version of the blues is the most stark and haunting you will hear.  This is a quick (under two minutes) version of "Crow Jane."  This is from the third volume of the American Folk Blues series, which features more acoustic artists than the previous two volumes.

Here's Sonny Boy Williamson (Rice Miller) playing "Nine Below Zero," backed by quite a band, which includes the great Otis Spann on piano, Matt "Guitar" Murphy on guitar, Willie Dixon manning the bass, and Billy Stepney on drums. The band is introduced by Memphis Slim, piano man extraordinaire, one of the musicians who ended up relocating in France.  He enjoyed quite a bit of success, and remained there for the rest of his life with the occasional trip back to the states.

The first volume of the series opens with this downhome track featuring Shakey Jake Harris singing "Call Me When You Need Me." Harris played harmonica and was part of the Chicago Blues scene in the 50's and 60's. He was also Magic Sam's uncle and appeared on several of Sam's early recordings, with Sam returning the favor by appearing on several of Shakey Jake's singles. You're familiar with the fellow backing Harris on guitar.  He sure makes it look easy, doesn't he?

Believe it or not, we have barely scratched the surface on this wonderful collection. There are four DVDs available right now, capturing the best of the festival throughout the 60's, featuring these artists and many, many others, like Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Buddy Guy, Magic Sam, Earl Hooker, John Lee Hooker, Memphis Slim, Bukka White, Koko Taylor, Roosevelt Sykes, Big Joe Turner, and many others. If you like the blues at all, you will absolutely have to have this set.  There are also some out-of-print CDs with festival performances floating around out there, too.

The American Folk Blues Festival continued on a nearly annual basis from 1962 until 1972. After eight years, it resumed in 1980 and continued until l985. There's also some YouTube footage of the 1982 festival (which I don't think is out on DVD yet). As we close for the week, enjoy this clip of the Sons of Blues playing Little Walter's "Juke." The SOB.'s were one of the newer bands at the time, and featured Billy Branch on harmonica and the awesome Lurrie Bell on guitar.  Now the band is booked as Billy Branch and the Sons of Blues.  Bell and later guitarist Carl Weathersby have long since departed.  A different version of the group (only drummer Moses Rutues is still with the group) continues to back Branch on the road.

One more thing before we go......if you're in the Phoenix area this weekend and itching to hear some great blues, harmonica player, producer, and radio show host (KJZZ's Those Lowdown Blues) Bob Corritore's club, The Rhythm Room, is celebrating its 20th Anniversary with an incredible weekend of blues.  Just check out the list of prestigious guests that will be helping Bob celebrate for three solid days.   

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