Lucky Peterson

Alligator AL 4770

Despite the renewed mainstream popularity of the blues, aficionados still lament the dearth of the kind of deeply expressive, emotionally taut performances that distinguished the music during its heyday. The litany is familiar: style has won out over substance, spectacle over soul, technique over truth. Especially among young musicians, the story goes, there’s precious little evidence that the vaunted renaissance means any true return to the intense, raw-nerved expression that once characterized the blues.

Like most stereotypes, this one is based in some truth but is vastly overdrawn. Traditional southern blues musicians often incorporated vaudeville novelty numbers and hillbilly music into their acts, both to please diverse audiences and to satisfy their own desire for artistic exploration and growth. Plenty of contemporary artists, as well, remain firmly rooted in the blues heritage even as they embellish their music with the inevitable modern influences with which they’ve grown up. To expect a musician who came of age in the 60s or 70s to ignore Motown, Jimi Hendrix, funk, or even such second-generation blues pretenders as Clapton and Beck is to deny him the right to play music that reflects the mood and artistic temperament of his times. Neither music nor musicians can grow in such a restricted atmosphere.

Still, the question remains: how can an artist combine meaningful blues with influences drawn from popular music that’s been mass-produced and sanitized, without compromising the emotional immediacy and directness that are at the heart of blues expression? This album represents one young man’s search for an answer.

Guitarist Judge “Lucky” Peterson was born in Buffalo, New York, and was something of a child prodigy, appearing on Ed Sullivan and other TV variety shows before the age of six. Before his 18th birthday he was an accomplished multiinstrumentalist–guitar, keyboards, bass, and trumpet–and had sat in at his father’s Buffalo nightclub with the likes of Koko Taylor, Lightnin’ Hopkins, and Jimmy Reed. At 17, Peterson secured a gig with Little Milton’s band that lasted three years, after which followed another three-year road job, this one with Bobby “Blue” Bland. Both Milton and Bland have remained successful through long careers largely because of their ability to stay true to the spirit of blues tradition while pleasing contemporary audiences.

Obviously, then, Peterson in his mid-20s is both steeped in living history and well aware of the demands placed on young artists to remain relevant to popular tastes. This LP, another in the series of Alligator reissues of discs originally produced by King Snake Records in Florida, shows him attempting to fuse the best of both worlds with results that bode well for the future of the blues.

Peterson plays guitar and organ here; to my ears, his guitar technique is the more exciting, with a shimmering tone and a propulsive rhythmic sense. It takes him a while, however, to really open himself up to his own possibilities. The opener, “Over My Head,” is a blues ballad in a slow, lurching groove based on the riff usually associated with Percy Mayfield’s “River’s Invitation”; Chicagoans may know it better as the one Junior Wells appropriated and made his own on “Going Down Slow.” Peterson’s vocals show clearly the influences of Little Milton and Bobby Bland with their vibrato-rich melodiousness and underlying hints of churchy passion and raspy sensuality, but the song is hindered by a strange restraint. The bite of the lyrics–“You’re riding in a limousine and I’m just one of the wheels, baby”–is somewhat offset by Peterson’s smooth organ comping, the slick band arrangements, and the pristine, roomy production. No one really cuts loose with the deep soul passion necessary to put this kind of song across; it almost sounds as if someone involved in the project was afraid that a full blast of angry blues grit so early in the record would be too much for the mainstream audience at which the album is obviously aimed.

“Pounding of My Heart” unleashes a bit more fire. The pounding here is the chunky, in-the-pocket symbiosis of the rhythm section (bassist/producer Bob Greenlee, rhythm guitarist Ernie Lancaster, drummer Scott Corwin), giving the cut some welcome good-time exuberance. Peterson seems most at home in this context, letting the good times roll and tossing off lyrics as low-priority accoutrements to his funky partying.

It’s not until the third number, a rollicking Bob Greenlee original titled “Can’t Get No Loving on the Telephone,” that Lucky finally breaks loose. It’s worth the wait; his guitar solo soars adventurously over the melody line (based on the classic “Dust My Broom”/”Sweet Home Chicago” triplet riff) with a welcome sense of exploratory enthusiasm, and his vocals are surer as well. The production serves to enhance the mood this time around, allowing the energy of the sidemen and Peterson’s own keyboard backing to complement perfectly the crisply articulated solo work that characterizes his guitar playing on most of this record.

The biggest surprise of the set is the ballad “She Spread Her Wings (and Flew Away).” The title is an obvious reference to Little Milton’s “Little Bluebird” (“Every time she flies by / I want to clip her wings / We’ll lock up in a nest together / I’ll buy her pretty things”), but this is an entirely different song.

It’s exquisitely crafted, both musically and lyrically. Peterson immediately establishes the song’s blues character with his reference to “coming home from work the other day,” reaffirming what a lot of contemporary musicians seem to have forgotten–one of the most distinguishing characteristics of the blues is their primarily adult sensibility, unlike the adolescent themes and feel of rock ‘n’ roll and much R & B. The story of betrayal is both poignant and bitter (“She’s a broken-wing woman, she fell out of someone else’s nest . . .” then later, “When she got back on her feet, let me tell you, it was leavin’ time / You know I found a broken-hearted woman but now this woman is breakin’ mine . . .”). This song rings true in the purest blues sense–as a personal statement, seeming to emanate from a particular individual’s place and time, made universal by the passion and conviction with which it’s sung.

Once he’s unleashed the full force of his gifts, Peterson is loath to put his light back under a bushel. The title tune, an instrumental, finishes out side one and should probably have been the album’s opener. It’s a full-bodied blues shuffle, sounding like the stage-warming number in some hot nightclub and giving everyone a chance to stretch out. One almost expects to hear an emcee: “And now, ladies and gentlemen, it’s star time . . . MISTER LUCKY PETERSON!” Except, of course, that it’s Lucky himself crashing away joyously on his keyboard, pushed on by the punchy horn arrangements and the driving backbeat of drummer Denny Best. Peterson’s years as a sideman saw him playing this kind of warm-up theme countless times for others; now he gets to do it for himself.

The only time Peterson falls into the dreaded technical-proficiency-at-the-expense-of-meaning trap is on side two’s “Bad Feeling.” It’s a rather standard “my baby don’t love me no more” blues, which may explain Peterson’s decision to try to goose it up with some guitar pyrotechnics toward the end. His musicianship is unassailable–he never misses a note–but there are simply too many hot young guitarists out there capable of this kind of thing, and among them they’ve pretty much played to death all the killer licks that can be played. The daunting challenge facing a young musician is to forge a distinctive style from the nuances of tone, phrasing, and improvisational imagination; technical mastery, these days, is assumed. Much of this LP shows that Peterson is well on his way to realizing that kind of tasteful personal style; here, though, he’s playing to the audience instead of his muse.

Peterson finds the line between histrionic excess and mainstream compromise on “Heart Attack.” He summons an aggressive voice appropriate to the declamatory testifying of the lyrics, and his solo work showcases a combination of sleek-handed dexterity and imagination. The sophisticated funk arrangement is lent added blues feeling by the hard edge of Peterson’s vocals (even as it’s bogged down by some unfortunate background crooning on the bridge), and the overall result is a happy marriage of blues authenticity and foot-pleasing danceability.

“Earlene,” the final cut, sheds light on the direction that’s likely to hold the most promise for Peterson. Based on the well-known “Linda Lou” shuffle, it’s carried along in a sensual lope by percussionist Best, and by the double-tracked interplay between Peterson’s crisp guitar and his own easy-rolling keyboard accompaniment. His closing solo, especially, combines spontaneous improvisation with melodic thoughtfulness in a way that’s becoming all too rare. It’s no-nonsense, meat-and-potatoes blues buoyed up by Peterson’s youthful enthusiasm and exploratory improvisational drive. The style is articulate and sure, technically impressive without showing off.

Despite this album’s occasional unevenness, it’s a mostly satisfying and occasionally exemplary look at the talents of an exciting young addition to the blues scene. Like most young musicians, Lucky Peterson is trying on several musical hats, hoping to find one that’s both artistically rewarding and commercially viable. In my opinion, “Earlene” is the kind of straight-ahead blues in which he’ll eventually find his niche.