Alligator [Release date 10.06.16]
With a back catalogue of 300 albums and a roster that spans generations, Alligator Records has every right to make a claim to being the premier independent blues label of our time.
The ‘Alligator 45th Anniversary Collection’ consistently reflects the label’s strap line of ‘Genuine Houserockin’ Music’, which is as relevant today as it was when visionary label boss Bruce Iglauer started back in 1971.
Of course you don’t get to celebrate a 45th anniversary without being able to deal with change, and it is to Iglauer’s eternal credit that he’s continually pushed the label forward with a willingness to invest in up-and-coming talent, while also supporting the staples of the Chicago blues scene, such as the Alligator breakthrough artist Koko Taylor, James Cotton – brilliantly represented here by ‘Cotton Mouth Man’ – and Son Seals.
There’s also a rich historic lineage that links the rip-roaring second generation slide player Lil’ Ed, with Hound Dog Taylor, who remains a signifier for a label that puts passion and intensity above all else.
Iglauer’s liner notes mention that by 1978, he expanded his artist repertoire by looking beyond Chicago to sign up blues heavy-weights such as Albert Collins – his dynamics sparkle on ‘If Trouble Was Money’ – and Johnny Winter, who slides and growls his way through ‘Shake Your Money Maker’.
He also mentions the significant demographic schism that changed his core blues audience and artists alike, with the label embarking on a refreshing broad based approach. This is evidenced by the wry humour and irony of Elvin Bishop and Rick Estrin, to more adventurous signings such as Uppity Blues Woman, Ann Rabson.
The soulful J.J. Grey and the Neil Young influenced deep grooves of Anders Osborne are good examples of original contemporary blues.
Moreland & Arbuckle also impress with lyrical acumen and musical intensity on ‘Take Me With You (When You Go)’, while Selwyn Birchwood’s dirt-toned guitar mixes southern boogie with Chicago grit.
And then there is the award winning Shemekia Copeland who explores contemporary social issues in her soulful take of the blues, and Jarekus Singleton a rock player who has thrillingly discovered the blues.
So much for the back story. As a compilation album, this ’45th Anniversary Collection’ is a well thought out package. You could argue about the choice of tracks, but the 2 CD set balances sheer diversity with an inherent flow, predicated on thoughtful sequencing.
Disc one shifts from Elvin Bishop’s world weary approach to the rising star of Chicago blues Toronzo Cannon, whose incisive guitar playing underpins lyrics about domestic politics.
Marcia Ball adds Texas style rolling piano blues and then there’s the sheer class of Joe Louis Walker, now re-positioned as a crossover artist, who is as happy in a soulful blues vein as he is rocking away on ‘Too Drunk To Drive’.
Mavis Staples with ‘Will The Circle Be Unbroken.’ and The Holmes Brothers on a gnarly ‘Amazing Grace’, respectively bookend both albums to remind us of the roots of the blues .
Disc two opens with James Cotton’s stellar ‘Cotton Mouth Man’, before the space and tone of Albert Collins and J.J. Grey’s funky southern soul brings yet more diversity.
The Kentucky Headhunters with Johnnie Johnson successfully crossover country into blues on ‘Stumblin’, and there’s a poignant side too, as some 14 blues artists have passed in the last 5 years, including the richly talented Michael Burks, whose ‘Empty Promises’ displays real song craft and emotion.
No Alligator compilation would be complete without the late, great, exiled Chicago blues man Luther Allison, who together with James Solberg brings real passion to his blues.
With 37 diverse examples of the blues, this ’45th Anniversary Collection’ matches, if not exceeds the label’s celebrated 20th anniversary album, and suggests that ‘Genuine Houserockin’ Music’ is in the rudest of health. ****1/2
Review by Pete Feenstra
Pete Feenstra presents his Rock & Blues Show on Get Ready to ROCK! Radio every Tuesday at 19:00 GMT, and “The Pete Feenstra Feature” on Sundays at 20:00