Friday, April 27, 2012

Howlin’ Wolf: Smokestack Lighting/The Complete Chess Masters 1951-1960 (Review)

Every form of guitar based rock music, from metal to alt-rock, owes its existence to the Chicago bluesmen of the mid-20th Century, and Howlin’ Wolf (Chester Arthur Burnett) was one of the Chicago blues’ biggest and most influential names. A hulking figure with an alternatingly booming and scratching voice (that would later be emulated and popularized by the legendary DJ of the nascent rock and roll era, Wolfman Jack), and whose guitar player, Hubert Sumlin, would inspire everyone from Eric Clapton to Jeff Beck to Jimmy Page to Jack White, Howlin’ Wolf was truly a legend amongst the many legendary blue guitarists and singers that came out of Chicago during 1950s. Over the years Howlin’ Wolf’s recordings have been packaged and repackaged over and over to varying quality and results. With the release of Howlin’ Wolf: Smokestack Lighting/ The Complete Chess Masters 1951-1960 though, anyone with an interest in or love of this long gone, but never forgotten, legend finally has one definitive collection of Wolf’s masterworks at their fingertips.

After signing with Chess Records, the Chicago based label responsible for popularizing Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry, Wolf went on to record his most widely recognized and listened to music, including “Smokestack Lighting,” which was a popular, well loved, and masterful blues track before it was corrupted into a Viagra promotion. Some argue that the more exposure Howlin’ Wolf can get the better, especially with the short attention spans and memories of today’s youth (who think Kurt Cobain invented the electric guitar) dominating pop culture trends. Some argue that it’s the ultimate insult to a penultimate artist. Whatever one thinks (I think its use is pretty sad), at least Wolf’s music is still alive pop-culturally somehow. 

The many different takes on some of Howlin’ Wolf’s other famous tracks makes this collection worth the money and repeat listens. The collection’s three version of “I’m Leaving You,” especially the captured studio banter and starts and stops on “I’m Leaving You (Takes 7-10),” are priceless insights into Wolf and his band’s recording process, not counting the fact that one of Howlin’ Wolf’s strongest tracks gets a full 12.41 minutes (and three of the 97 tracks on the collection) devoted to it. “I’ve Been Abused” gets a similar treatment with 9 takes, one full final track, and 7.17 minutes devoted to it.  

Wolf’s haunting track “Evil (Is Going On)” might be one of Howlin’ Wolf’s most referenced tracks as to the spiritual side of the blues and the dread that often surrounds it. The blues were born out of the many years of struggle the African-American community suffered through over the preceding centuries and was the result of a co-mingling of “spirituals, work songs, field hollers, shouts and chants, and rhymed simple narrative ballads,” but tracks captured here like “I Have a Little Girl,” with their zest for life and love demonstrate that even though Howlin’ Wolf himself described the blues as something you got “when you got no money and evil is on your mind,” there was, and is, another side of the existential coin where life is beautiful and bountiful. Very few bluesmen capture this dichotomy of life in their music like Howlin’ Wolf does, and no other collection of Wolf’s music, that I have come across at least, captures that music as well as this one does.  

Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars 

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