Luther Allison

Skyline Stage, July 26

By Steve Knopper

Rock has clearly benefited by appropriating the blues, but sadly, the reverse is rarely true. It’s hard to believe that this is the same city where Willie Dixon wrote “Back Door Man” and where Muddy Waters played the half-minute gem of a guitar solo on “Honey Bee.” Chicago-style electric blues has slowly devolved into a stereotype: long, flashy guitar solos–with maybe a short organ or harmonica solo to break the monotony–and songs that stretch to insufferable Grateful Dead lengths. Players jam with heads reared back, grimacing like Jimi Hendrix or Eddie Van Halen, even occasionally plucking strings with teeth and tongues.

I heard in Luther Allison’s 1995 album Blue Streak something that transcended all these contemporary cliches. The 57-year-old singer from the west side, who spent much of his career in Paris before returning to Chicago in the early 90s, for once had used guitar playing to augment his songs instead of the other way around. Allison’s fast riffs, a mixture of Jimi Hendrix rock, James Brown funk, and his own imaginative stops and starts, weren’t the whole point. They existed to serve the songs.

Toward the end of “Cherry Red Wine,” for example, a song about a miserable alcoholic friend, Allison abruptly cuts off the music. There’s an emphatic moment of silence before his voice reappears. If she keeps it up, he sings, at the top of his lungs, “even the grass that grows on your grave will be cherry red.” The guitars and percussion return with a dramatic crash. It’s the sort of moment more often heard in punk.

After a number of such moments I began to perceive Blue Streak as a disciplined collection of songs that rarely indulged in the sort of showy moves that too frequently pass for electric Chicago blues. I was relieved when Blue Streak cleaned up in this year’s prestigious W.C. Handy Awards–maybe other electric blues performers would admire the songwriting emphasis and tone down the wanking. As it turned out, my perception was backward. Actually, Allison and his many fans perceived the album as limited, and the studio as limiting. The same thing happened to Buddy Guy–he has spent his career trying to capture his live, long-winded jamming on record, but for whatever reason winds up holding back in the studio.

Last Friday’s all-star concert, a celebration of the Alligator label’s 25th year as a keystone of Chicago blues, amounted to almost four hours of showing off. Everyone might as well have been playing “Sweet Home Chicago” over and over. Elvin Bishop, the ex-Paul Butterfield Blues Band guitarist, came out in his usual overalls, work boots, and gravity-defying frizzy hair and played a bunch of guitar solos. Lonnie Brooks, the hard-traveling bluesman with the tall cowboy hat, played a bunch of guitar solos. His son and bandmate, Ronnie Baker Brooks, played a bunch of guitar solos. Carey Bell, a longtime Alligator recording artist, came out in a gray double-breasted suit and played a bunch of harmonica solos. Then came Allison and…guess what he did?

Every song, even “Cherry Red Wine” and “Big City,” with its fearsome verses about “too many funerals,” were shells, loose and distressingly similar frameworks for the guitar jams. In a medley of songs from Blue Streak, Allison downplayed the words so he could focus more on the guitar solos. Instead of hearing that dramatic moment in “Cherry Red Wine,” I heard a never-ending swamp of technical guitar noise. Like Brooks, Allison played licks with his teeth. Like Brooks and Bishop, he walked down the cement aisles with his guitar, shaking hands and talking to his fans. He made his guitar “talk,” kind of like Peter Frampton’s. (“Hey, baby,” I think it said.) He flailed his arms and flexed his fingers so rapidly it looked at times like he was being electrocuted.

I have nothing against showmanship. I’d rather watch Bishop than, say, Don Henley, a decent songwriter with absolutely no charisma. Bishop looks like the crazed mechanic who’d soup your Saturn into a stock car when all you’d wanted was an oil change. He’s a lot of fun to watch. It’s just that his never-ending solos, which are the guitar equivalent of Michael Bolton’s bombastic singing, get on my nerves.

To Allison’s credit, he displayed more depth and strayed from the 12-bar blues formula more often than Brooks, Bishop, or Bell. His four-piece band played “Soul Fixin’ Man,” and Allison was a compact whirlwind of activity. He’d step into the spotlight, his fingers would explode into a solo, and then he’d abruptly stop it short. Then he’d do a staccato funk thing, like a repetitive James Brown riff, then slip back into more familiar electric-blues whining. His version of the late pioneering Alligator bluesman Hound Dog Taylor’s “Give Me Back My Wig” was moving. But I kept waiting for the good songs to take over, and they never did.

Unsurprisingly, it’s all rock ‘n’ roll’s fault. That is, it’s the fault of rock ‘n’ roll excess and indulgence, which sadly began to creep into traditional blues in the 60s. Eric Clapton, Johnny Winter, Jeff Beck, Jimi Hendrix, and Duane Allman found ways to kick off the shackles that held their blues idols in check, in and out of the studio. The rules changed–a song didn’t have to be 2 minutes, it could be 8, or 17, or heck, an entire album. The surviving bluesmen adapted gradually.

What today’s Chicago bluesmen have chosen not to observe is the almost-as-old movement in rock to cut the songs back down to the bone. The Sex Pistols gave lip service to political upheaval in England, but their most enduring legacy was the widespread revival of the three-minute pop song with a short, potent guitar solo, if any. That’s the dominant strain in pop music today, Phish and the Dave Matthews Band notwithstanding. There’s even a disorganized movement of punk-rocking blues fans–Doo Rag, G. Love and Special Sauce, the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion (who just recorded an album with Delta bluesman R.L. Burnside), PJ Harvey, even Beck–who are managing to expand the original form without indulging in senseless soloing.

Maybe punk’s back-to-basics ethic will spill over into the blues; probably not. Meanwhile, in order to tour the nightclub circuit, an electric blues player still has to jam like Bishop, Brooks, and Allison. Short, tight, well-written blues songs just don’t sell–the raw harp-guitar duo of John Cephas and Phil Wiggins and the young acoustic singer-songwriter Keb’ Mo’ have had trouble peddling music sans jams to the mainstream blues audience. So these artists have a few options: They can switch to punk or country music, where concise songwriting remains dominant, or they can spend some time with those Eric Clapton records. Everybody makes more money that way. Only the songs suffer.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of Luther Allison by Dan Silverman.