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Pair of blues CDs from dear and departed

By Greg Cahill

IT AIN'T GRITS 'n' gravy, but the new blues CDs pouring into the stores this year portend a feast for diehard blues hounds. Last year certainly had its high points--notably great new albums from B. B. King, Duke Robillard, and Robert Jr. Lockwood. But you don't get great blues without, well, a case of the blues. Which means the genre lost some of its heroes in the past year, particularly vocalists Charles Brown and Johnny Adams, and guitarists Jimmy Rogers and Junior Kimbrough.

At least they left us not only lasting legacies but strong swan songs.

Here are just a couple:

The Jimmy Rogers All-Stars Blues Blues Blues Atlantic

THIS WAS supposed to be Jimmy Rogers' comeback album. Instead, it's a tribute to the late Chicago musician, the last member of the original Muddy Waters Blues Band and the man who was responsible for developing the electric-blues guitar style emulated by many of the rock era's best axeslingers. This recording project--featuring Eric Clapton, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, Taj Mahal, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, and Lowell Fulson, among others--began several months before Rogers died. He spoke excitedly about it in an Independent interview shortly before his appearance at the Mystic Theater just eight weeks before his death at age 74.

There are many bright spots--most notably, pianist Johnny Johnson (the former Chuck Berry sideman), who provides the cohesion to these far-flung sessions. Then there's Rogers himself. His vocals are strong, and his picking is clean and unpretentious. And while he never quite slips into one of the primitive-sounding trance grooves that he often evoked, he remained one of the genre's most unappreciated contributors. If there is any complaint, it is that the sessions suffer from too many jaunty, barroom jams, such as the cover of "Sweet Home Chicago" with guest Stephen Stills.

Unfortunately, Rogers often is forced to fit into a generic mold that suits his blues-rock guests without reinforcing his own trademark sound--a problem that has plagued similar all-star blues projects in the past. Buy it for kicks, but if you really want to sink your teeth into this guitar great's work, search out last year's MCA/Chess Jimmy Rogers two-CD retrospective.

Junior Kimbrough God Knows I Tried Fat Possum

R. L. Burnside Come on In Fat Possum

JUNIOR KIMBROUGH put the danger back into a genre that had been co-opted by funk-oriented wannabes and slick beer commercials. Hailing from northeast Mississippi, Kimbrough--who died last year at age 67--didn't record until 1992. New York Times blues writer Robert Palmer brought him to the public's attention in his book Deep Blues. That work later was transformed into a rootsy documentary of the same name by filmmaker Robert Mugge, who included scenes of Kimbrough in his backwoods juke joint. Such rock bands as the Rolling Stones, U2, Sonic Youth, and the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion made pilgrimages to the club to savor Kimbrough's raggedy, trancelike songs, which abandoned the traditional blues progressions in favor of rough-hewn riffs and rambling melodies. God Knows I Tried is Kimbrough at his unassuming best. Grab a stiff drink and bundle of heartache and pull up a chair.

Meanwhile, labelmate R. L. Burnside, alive and kicking, who recorded 1996's A Ass Pocket of Whiskey with Jon Spencer--gets the royal treatment on Come on In from big-time engineer Tom Rothrock, who remixes Burnside's simple Delta blues for trendy urban beat boys and beat girls. Sort of like Burnside's low-rent Zootopia tour from the trailer park to your house.

For the most part, Burnside's stinging slide work rises to the top, and one can't help but get the feeling that he's pretty amused by all this attention. With Gen X already firmly embracing the blues, projects like this one can only help firm up the genre's future.

Let it ride, baby.

From the February 4-10, 1999 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

© Metro Publishing Inc.

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