OCT 2001

Alligator Records 30th Anniversary

Alligator Records is the foremost blues label in America. Started in 1971 by Bruce Iglauer in Chicago, over the years his roster of blues artists has featured some of the best and most authentic artists to record the blues. Notables such as Koko Taylor, Son Seals, Hound Dog Taylor, Lonnie Brooks, Albert Collins, Johnny Winter, Lonnie Mack, Roy Buchanan, Lucky Peterson, Katie Webster, Little Charlie and the Nightcats, Buddy Guy, Dave Hole, Bob Margolin, Saffire—The Uppity Blues Women, Shemekia Copeland, Marcia Ball, The Holmes Brothers all have released strong and cutting edge material on Alligator. And over the years besides individual recordings by these great artists, Alligator has released some of the greatest blues compilations ever recorded. In 1986 came the brilliant "Genuine Houserockin’ Music" series. Ultimately numbering five volumes, these CD gems offered over 70 minutes of the hottest blues for a price of around seven dollars each. This excellent deal is still around.

Stating in 1991, Alligator released the first of their Anniversary Collections. Over the years these double-CDs likewise presented an excellent overview of the many artists found on the label and again were priced to sell. The initial 1991 release was so successful that many of the compiled artists formed a touring company and an anthology of their live recording was released and nominated for a Grammy in 1992.

In 1996 came their 25th Anniversary Collection and now the 30th Anniversary Collection has just been released. Like the other Anniversary sets, this latest version is a double compilation, but unlike the other sets this Collection is divided between performers "in the studio" and "on the stage." Naturally, the studio offerings are of the highest standard and feature some startling performances by some of the newest blues artists. For instance, Michael Burke’s scorching Gibson Flying V guitar does more than just look like Albert King’s. Burke’s guitar technique sounds like King: stretching and wringing and pulling those dripping guitar lines following a long electric blues tradition. Besides sounding like King, Burke sings like King. On "Got a Way With Women" his baritone voice and southern inflections make for some great listening.

Marcia Ball’s piano work has never been stronger than on her "Louella." For so many years Ball has been cruising on her reputation of performing workerlike boogie-bayou music. But over the last couple of years she has become a much more dominant player. Instead of merely filling the groove, she now takes command. The introductory riff on "Louella" shows a left hand that is as strong as any current boogie/pop pianist. Because of this stronger playing her always exciting music is now riveting. William Clarke’s harmonica playing on "Broke and Hungry" is nothing short of stellar—hot Chicagoan blowing. The introductory unison line between the harmonica and baritone sax is so tight and appealing, following the course of only a few great harmonica players. Listening to this musical device, it’s a shame that the Great Ann Arbor band who constantly used this technique—Big Dave and the Ultrasonics—was never picked up by Alligator. Whims of the music business aside, Clarke’s harmonica work is breath-taking.

No doubt the gospel-blues of the Holmes Brothers will set you right on your can. At one moment funky, another dripping with soul, yet another seeping with gospel flair, on "Homeless Child" these brothers’ down-home approach to blues-inspired music continues to inspire and lead the blues field.

Australian Dave Hole’s slide guitar playing puts him in the forefront of hot and heavy blues players. His slide work is stronger than Johnny Winter’s yet as supple as Bonnie Raitt’s. His "Jenny Lee" gives an excellent showcase for his dynamic screaming brand of the slide guitar blues—a real rocker.

As strong as the studio disk is, the live disk presents the blues in its proper forum—on stage. Although each of the 13 cuts are strong in their own way, highlights include the stunning "Soul Fixin’ Man" by Luther Allison (show-stopper at the first Ann Arbor Blues Festival in 1971), "Slow Down" by the incomparable Elvin Bishop, "Sadie" by Son Seals and Elvin Bishop, and "It’s Alright" by the late Hound Dog Taylor and the Houserockers.

Son Seals’ performance of "Sadie" is masterful even without the masterly inclusion of Elvin Bishop. This signature song of Hound Dog Taylor virtually explodes with the addition of the incendiary guitar duel between Seals and Bishop. But this song has greater significance. The story goes that after Bruce Iglauer heard Hound Dog Taylor perform this tune at the Chicago south-side blues club, The Expressway, he tried to get Taylor a recording contract with Chicago’s Delmark label. After they declined, Iglauer recorded Taylor himself and traveled from college to college promoting the record. Within nine months Iglauer left Delmark, and Alligator Records was thus born.

There is one last piece to this excellent double CD set that those without a computer might miss. Hidden on the "on stage" disk is a video clip of Hound Dog Taylor and the Houserockers playing "Taylor’s Rock." This fuzzy, blurring bit of Americana clearly shows why Iglauer was enamored with Taylor and is itself worth the price of the CD.


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