Sunday, 22 December 2019

Mojo Working: the Best of Ace Blues - Various Artists

Provenance: Learning how to play guitar, blues was almost one of the first things I gravitated towards. The songs largely stuck to a formula I could follow, it gave me the foundations upon which to fumble around with the minor pentatonic, plus it sounded really cool.

I think I picked this little doozy up in my late teens. I definitely had it before university, because I used Little Willie Littlefield's 'Happy Pay Day' on a video project.

Review: Twenty tracks and not a duff amongst them. I must have picked this up because I recognised a few of the names - BB King, John Lee Hooker, Lightnin' Hopkins - but it's the lesser lights who make this interesting. For a genre that is sometimes dismissed as too simplistic for true sophisticates, it also runs the gamut, from the minimalist vamping of Hooker on the immortal 'Boogie Chillen' via the skronkin' sax-fest of Littlefield's jubilant 'Happy Pay Day' to the lamplit comedown blues of Johnny 'Guitar' Watson's wonderful, idiosyncratic 'Three Hours Past Midnight'. The vast majority of this stuff comes from the 1950s but still packs a right ol' wallop in the speaker department, and makes a lot of what was on the pop charts at the time sound insipid and neutered.

Honestly, this collection probably came along at just the right time. Having (somewhat) shaken off my thraldom to Stevie Ray Vaughan, I was dangerously close to becoming that most dreaded specie amongst blues fans, the Purist. Any taint of commerciality, any hint that the guy I was listening to hadn't flogged his soul at the crossroads, and I wasn't interested. For me, half the excitement was the mystery, the notion of singular men "emerging fully-formed from the Delta", as Elijah Wald has it in Escaping the Delta, his excellent deconstruction of the mythology and assumptions made about Robert Johnson, probably the blues' most totemic figure (a book that also ably demonstrates that Johnson was every bit as swayed by his peers, and contemporary tastes, as any other artist). So, for me, the perfect blues artist had an unknown birthdate, a sketchy recording history, and an early, hopefully disputed, and perhaps grisly, death. Oh, and they played solo.

The archetype, then, was someone like Blind Willie Johnson and his 'Cold Was the Night, Dark Was the Ground'; a piece of music so powerful that it was blasted into the galaxy for space aliens to enjoy, performed by an artist who met a suitably gothic demise. Not quite as tragic, but even more haunting was Skip James' breathtaking 'Devil Got My Woman', used to such good effect in the underrated movie Ghost World. You see, it all resonated with that key watchword for me - authenticity.

So, thank goodness for Mojo Working, with its stylistic breadth and judicious choice of cuts. Yes, it still had those choons that got me all shivering and misty-eyed about southron twilights - the spare, sinister 'Lonesome Dog Blues' from Lightnin' Hopkins chief amongst them - but it also opened my ears to the richness and variety not just of the sonic template of the blues, but also its moods. I've already mentioned the knockabout 'Happy Pay Day', but there's also the sly insinuations of Arthur Gunter's chooglin' acoustic number 'Baby Let's Play House' and the more forthright swamp-braggadocio of Slim Harpo's 'I'm a King Bee' (which features a sound used to create the instrumental hook - I'm not even sure whether it's a bass or harmonica - that I'm yet to hear anywhere else).

Mojo Working basically became by blues primer, the springboard for exploration which has led me to buying albums of at least half of the artists that feature on the compilation. Hell, I've even reviewed a couple of them! But the one I want to dwell on just for a moment is an artist who first tasted success with rhythm and blues in the 1950s, and then again during the 1970s. I am, of course, talking about Johnny 'Guitar' Watson. I am actually more familiar with his hepcat funkster output, but the 1956 joint that appears on Mojo Working sounds astonishingly modern. 'Three Hours Past Midnight' is remarkable not only for its pin-sharp production but the tone Watson coaxes out of his guitar. On an album full of distinctive guitar work (from Elmore James's slashing slide playing to Little Johnny Taylor's busy, jazzy runs up and down the fretboard), Watson's lead sounds like it was beamed in from another galaxy. It's utterly strange! A kind of clucking, quacking noise that's accentuated by Watson's staccato attack (apparently using his thumb alone, which boggles my noggin), but something I can't imagine all the available ProTools plugins could ever replicate.

They might get close, but they'll never quite make it. And what is that unassailable quality that cannot quite be replicated, if it isn't that magic notion, authenticity?

Of the hundreds of albums I own, few have burnt themselves into the memory quite like Mojo Working. Every track appears in the mind's eye as distinct and as whole as entire universes. When I give this a spin, I can convince myself that this is the alpha and omega; no other music exists. And for the span of an hour, perhaps, it doesn't.

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