Friday, November 12, 2010

Blues For The Budget-Minded

If you're like most people, you're suffering from a condition that's all too common these days.....them No Budget Blues.  For most folks under tight financial conditions, one of the first things to go might be that spare change you used to allow to purchase the occasional blues CD.  One of the best ways around this condition for blues fans is the compilation CD.  Most blues labels put out collections of their best recordings on a regular basis, usually at a bargain price.  Not only is it an inexpensive way to get your hands on some quality blues music, but it also offers the possibility of exposing you to new artists that you might not have heard otherwise.  I have been picking up budget compilations for years and have discovered many of my favorite artists along the way.  Today, Friday Blues Fix will look at a few of the collections that opened my eyes and ears to some great music, and we'll throw a few samples your way while we're at it.

When I first started listening to the blues, MCA was reissuing a lot of the old Chess Records.  Most of these records originally done in the 50's or 60's were relatively short, about ten songs lasting about thirty minutes at most, so MCA released them at pretty low prices.  I knew a lot of the artists for Chess by name only and it was so overwhelming that I didn't know where to get started.  Fortunately for me, MCA had also reissued Chess' classic The Blues five-volume series.  These albums featured tracks from the entire line-up of Chess artists....Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Little Walter, Sonny Boy Willamson, Buddy Guy, Jimmy Rogers, and countless others.  Within a few weeks, I had all five volumes and my blues vocabulary had expanded a hundredfold.  Unfortunately, these are hard to find now, but MCA (and now Universal Music) has repackaged the Chess catalog several times over the years and most of these songs are still easy to find, though not quite as low-budget as previously.  In the early 90's, Chess released a Volume 6 with nothing but rarities on it.  If you can find this series, it's a great, inexpensive place to build up your collection of Chess blues.  They can be easily found on Ebay or on Amazon in used condition for small change, and are well worth the hunt.  Here's the first song I ever heard by Buddy Guy, courtesy of The Blues, Volume 1......"First Time I Met The Blues."

Another great indispensible source of blues in a more modern vein came from Alligator Records.  Their Genuine Houserockin' Music series was an incredible introduction to the Chicago label's wide span of  artists.  I had originally picked up a couple of their albums in record stores and enjoyed them, but when I picked up Volume 1 of this set, I knew that I had to dig deeper.  About once a year for five or six years, the label released a new volume that collected recent recordings.  There were five of these, plus a Christmas edition.  These albums included cuts from Johnny Winter, Koko Taylor, Albert Collins, Roy Buchanan, Hound Dog Taylor, Fenton Robinson, Jimmy Johnson, Kenny Neal, Tinsley Ellis, Lil' Ed & the Blues Imperials, Little Charlie and the Nightcats, Lonnie Brooks, and James Cotton.  Going the extra mile for their listeners, Alligator has also, since the early 90's, released an anniversary two-disc set every five years, also at budget prices, of some of their best work.  These have essentially replaced the Houserockin' series over the years and more and more of them feature previously unreleased songs.

Speaking of anniversary releases, several blues labels have turned out some great releases celebrating their years in the record business.  Delmark Records has issued anniversary sets for their blues and jazz catalog every five years since their 20th, the last couple also included DVDs.  The unsung Chicago label Earwig Records released a two-CD 20th anniversary set a few years ago that featured music from many little-heard Chicago area artists.  The German label Ruf Records released a 12th, yes....a 12th, anniversary set a couple of years ago with some of the best of the blues being played by many American (Larry Garner, Luther Allison, Omar and the Howlers, Candye Kane, Bernard Allison) and European artists (Ian Parker, Ainsley Lister, Ana Popovic).  There have been many others, and most of them offer some quality listening because the labels are putting examples of their best material on these discs.  I was able to track down some additional music from artists I'd never heard before after listening to these releases.  The great Jimmy Dawkins released an awesome disc in the early 90's from Earwig and this song, "Beetin Knockin Ringin," was on it and also the Earwig anthology.  Check it out.

Around the time I started buying CDs, Rounder Records came out with their fantastic Easydisc series.  By the mid 90's, Rounder had built a huge catalog of blues, zydeco, Cajun, New Orleans R&B, folk, country, surf, and bluegrass recordings, so they began releasing collections of recordings, usually taking on a particular theme, like Blues Guitar Greats, Zydeco Party, Blues on Fire, etc....).  In addition to their own catalog, Rounder also issued tracks from artists on Alligator and JSP on Easydisc recordings, giving them additional exposure.  Due to some of these collections, particularly Blues on Fire, I discovered the British label, JSP, and their vast catalog of seldom-recorded artists like U. P. Wilson, the Butler Twins, and many other artists that they featured on their own budget-priced collections.

JSP offered anthologies of their current releases that loaded sixteen or eightteen songs on a budget-priced disc.  They also offered two-disc sets on Chicago and Texas blues that brought out a lot of previously unheard musicians and many of them benefitted from the exposure.  Another great collection came from the Dutch label, Black Magic, and had some great tracks as well.  Somehow, someway, JSP and Black Magic collections found their way into a lot of mall music stores in Mississippi, which is where I found them.  Take a break from reading and enjoy these two tracks.....first, from the JSP anthology Chicago Blues (Volume 1), here's Phil Guy, brother of Buddy, playing "Once A Gambler"......then from the Black Magic anthology, Witchcraft: Black Magic for Beginners, here's another highly underrated Chicago artist, the late Andrew Brown, with "I Can Hear My Baby Talking."  Brown was criminally underrecorded and he passed away from cancer at a pretty young age in the late 80's, so few got to hear his soul-based blues.  We'll be discussing Andrew Brown more in a future FBF.

In the 70's, the recording business was basically dead to blues musicians.  Their best bet back then was to go to Europe and tour for the appreciative fans overseas.  While they were there, many of them recorded for various labels, like Black & Blue, Sonet, and others.  In the early 90's, Evidence Records bought the rights to many of these albums and began releasing them as budget discs, with bonus tracks added in most cases.  Most of these are still available from Evidence and offer some great music by nearly every major blues artists during that time, filling a gap in most of their recording careers for U.S. fans.

That covered most of the post-war blues for me.  There was also the outstanding collection of discs from Yazoo Records.  Yazoo collected many of the great pre-war artists of the late 20's and 30's in various collections.  It was on these recordings that I first heard Charley Patton, Sam Collins, Skip James, Kokomo Arnold, Tommy Johnson, and Frank Stokes.  Yazoo Records offered a package deal where you could buy three or four and get one free and they were fairly inexpensive to start with, so I snatched up a well-rounded collection over a short amount of time.  To many blues fans, the pre-war recordings are an acquired taste, due to rough sound in most cases, but modern technology has done wonders for these dusty old recordings.  JSP, in particular, has reissued some of these recordings in budget-priced box sets with excellent sound.  Give a listen to Charley Patton's original version of "Spoonful Blues," from Yazoo's Roots of Rock collection.

There are countless other anthology releases that are also worth seeking out, but what you have here is a good start if you're trying to expand your blues collection in a short time on a limited budget.  A bit of warning though......once you get started listening, it's hard to stop.

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