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Feature Reviews: Alligator Records’ 40th Anniversary Collection; Roomful of Blues, Hook Line & Sinker; and Shemekia Copeland, Deluxe Edition

Various Artists
40th Anniversary Collection
[Alligator (2011)]

Roomful Of Blues
Hook Line & Sinker
[Alligator (2011)]

Shemekia Copeland
Deluxe Edition
[Alligator (2011)]

Blues aficionado Bruce Iglauer was a shipping clerk for Chicago-based Delmark Records when he launched a new record label to release a raw, but exciting, album by Hound Dog Taylor and the Houserockers. Four decades later, that label—Alligator Records—has grown into the largest independent blues label in the world. Its catalog of nearly 300 albums includes some of the most influential recordings in blues history. To celebrate its 4th decade, Alligator reaches into its vaults and comes up with a powerful treatise on the continued growth of Delta-rooted music.

The early days are well represented on the 40th Anniversary Collection. Koko Taylor, who gets things started with a gut-driven anthem, “I’m A Woman,” is joined by Buddy Guy & Junior Wells (“Give Me My Coat And Shoes”); Son Seals (“Going Home”); Lonnie Brooks (“Don’t Take Advantage Of Me”); Eddy “The Chief” Clearwater (“A Good Leavin’ Alone”); and Hound Dog Taylor, who performs a relaxed blues (“Sitting At Home Alone”) rather than with his signature barbed-wire intensity. The great Chicago blues harmonica players—Charlie Musselwhite (“Where Hwy 61 Runs”) and James Cotton (“With The Quickness”)—are balanced by hard-edged guitar demonstrations by Albert Collins (“I Ain’t Drunk”); Guitar Shorty (“We The People”); Johnny Winter (“Mojo Boogie”); Lonnie Mack, who updatehis 1958 blues-rock hit (“Double Whammy aka Wham!”); and a Texas blues guitar super-group featuring Johnny Copeland, Robert Cray, and Albert Collins (“T-Bone Shuffle”). A gospel tinge is added by the Holmes Brothers (“Feed My Soul”) and Mavis Staples (“Step into the Light”), while the acoustic trio Saffire—The Uppity Blues Women add a woman’s perspective. But it’s the inclusion of equally-potent more-recent artists, like Tommy Castro (“Backup Plan”), Li’l Ed & the Blues Imperials (“Icicles In My Meatloaf”), Rick Estrin & the Nightcats (“UBU”), and Copeland’s blues shouting daughter Shemekia Copeland (“It’s My Own Tears”) that prove the durability of the blues. While an emphasis is placed on Chicago artists, the collection reaches beyond the Windy City with a new tunes by Rhode Island-based jump blues group, Roomful of Blues (“That’s A Pretty Good Love”), and classic tracks by New Orleans’ Professor Longhair (“Red Beans aka Got My Mojo Working”), Katie Webster (“Two-Fisted Mama”), Marcia Ball (“The Party’s Still Going On”), and Buckwheat Zydeco (“When The Levee Breaks”).

Roomful of Blues didn’t release their first album until 1978, but they had already been attracting attention as “America’s best unsigned band” for 3 years when Iglauer began Alligator Records. Though no one remains from the original band, the group’s legacy is secure. Having endured the pressure of replacing guitar god Ronnie Earl, who had replaced original bandleader (and fellow guitar god) Duke Robillard, in 1996, Vachon continues to lead Roomful of Blues into the future. Tenor/alto saxophonist Rich Lataille, who joined in 1970, serves as a link to the early days, while the rest of the current lineup—Travis Colby (keyboards), Ephraim Lowell (drums), and Mark Farley (baritone/alto saxophone) and newcomers, John Turner (bass), Doug Woolverton (trumpet), and Phil Pemberton (vocals)—are as steady as any in the band’s history. On their latest outing, Hook Line & Sinker, the octet turns the clock back to the golden era of jump blues for a good-time, partying, set of tunes by Little Richard, Dave Bartholomew, Amos Milburn, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, and Floyd Dixon.

Shemikia Copeland. (Photo (c) 2011 Craig Harris)

Still in her teens when she signed with Alligator, Shemekia Copeland has continued to grow as one of contemporary blues’ most successful artists. Her first album for the Telarc label, Never Going Back, in 2009, led to a Living Blues “Blues artist of the year” award and a “Contemporary Female artist of the year” W.C. Handy/Blues Music award. But it was the four albums that the Harlem-born vocalist recorded for Alligator between 1998 and 2005 that set the tone for her success. Bringing together 14 tracks from those four albums, Deluxe Edition shows how much, despite her youth, she was in control of her powerful, hard-hitting sound. This is one woman that you don’t want to cross. In a self-assured, no-BS, tone, these tunes roar with don’t-mess-with-me attitude. Opening with the title track of Copeland’s debut album, “Turn The Heat Up,” one of 2 tunes driven by the Uptown Horns, the flame is set to high and never turned down. This is a woman with emotions ready to boil over. She has no problem warning an unwanted admirer (“Better Not Touch”) or telling a lover how lucky he is (“Wild, Wild Woman”) or suggesting that he should shout out his love (“Don’t Whisper’). She looks back at a difficult childhood during a song written and originally recorded by her father, “Ghetto Child,” featuring Steve Cropper, producer of her 2005 album, “The Soul Truth,” and summons images of an old-time blues musician during a sparse acoustic guitar and vocal duet with Jimmy Vivino (“Beat Up Guitar”). Copeland bemoans the increasingly absence of quality broadcasting (“Who Stole My Radio”) and tries to seduce the great elf of the North Pole during “Stay A Little, Santa.” The producer of Copeland’s third album, “Talking To Strangers,” Dr. John, is featured on four tracks. Sugar Blue’s harmonica playing enlivens the Blues Music Award-winning “It’s 2AM.”

—Craig Harris (Chicopee, MA)

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