Lil’ Ed Williams and his half-brother James “Pookie” Young have been playing the blues together since they were teenagers in the 1970s. Influenced as a guitarist and a showman by his uncle, the Chicago blues great J.B. Hutto, Williams has led his band of Blues Imperials to international fame ever since they were signed to Alligator Records in 1986 during a recording session for what was meant to be a single appearance on a compilation album.
The blues world is not famous for keeping the same musicians together in bands. A combination of economic factors and the dream of personal stardom has caused most every blues performer to become used to a revolving cast of characters over a long career. However, once rhythm guitarist Michael Garrett and drummer Kelly Littleton joined Williams in 1989, Lil’ Ed and the Blues Imperials have stayed together as a rock solid unit. (To be entirely truthful, they did take a few years off in the late 1990s for Williams to record a couple of solo albums without them; no narrative is perfect.)
Lil' Ed & the Blues Imperials' Jump Start
The sound of Lil’ Ed and the Blues Imperials hasn’t changed much since that night when Alligator’s Bruce Iglauer decided he had to have them on his label. It starts with the thrilling, electric pulsating tone of Williams' guitar, and the battery of slide licks he’s taken from the repertoires of all the greats like Hutto, Elmore James, and Hound Dog Taylor. Williams is an effective singer, too; his vocals make use of subtle melisma that punctuates his shouts and moans. The Blues Imperials push him hard; this is a band designed to keep people moving on the dance floor.
Jump Start, the latest effort from Lil’ Ed and the Blues Imperials, is about as exciting as the blues can get these days. The material, all written or co-written by Williams save one Hutto cover, is exceptionally strong, and the performances don’t let up. While covering a lot of blues ground, from stompers to minor-key ballads, the over-all effect is of a joyous, raucous, and energetic party that doesn’t want to end.
Kick Me To The Curb
The album opens with a riveting rocker, “If You Were Mine,” propelled by Williams’ slide-guitar rave-up and the band at full tilt. Williams considers all the nice things he’d do if he could be loved by the woman in question, and his guitar captures the emotional intensity of pure desire. “Musical Mechanical Electrical Man,” a song which deserves to be added immediately to the repertoire of every decent blues house band, follows, offering a litany of his abilities to provide service. As the band cooks in double time, Williams sings just ahead of the rhythm, creating an exhilarating tension released with his post-Elmore James slide licks. Wait for the amusing guitar as vocal bit at the end, too.
“Kick Me to the Curb” slows things down a bit, allowing the dancers to cool off after the frenzy of the first two songs, but the groove is still insatiable. Williams sings about gaining revenge for the mean things his woman has done to him, but he still sounds here like there’s a smile in his voice. It takes more to make him mad, as in the admission that “you burned me to my soul when I caught you smoking crack” in “You Burnt Me,” a still slower, minor-key blues ballad. Here, Williams sounds flustered and torn up about the love he still has, and the knowledge it can’t go on.
Life Is A Journey
“House of Cards” and “Born Loser” bring us back to up-tempo dance mode. The former is a clever reworking of playing cards metaphor common to many songs, with a stunningly controlled burn of a guitar solo without his trademark slide. The latter is braggadocio upended by bad luck, though that slide-guitar rips right through the song, making it impossible to believe he could ever lose. “Jump Right In” is a salacious jump-blues, with his guitar adding sly winks to lines like “come on in to my deep end."
“Life Is A Journey,” like several songs here co-written with his wife Pam, is a sweetly melodic tale of true love set in a mournful minor key. But that allows Williams to let his guitar experience the feelings of his wife. He plays the longest solo of the record here, and it resonates perfectly with the tender emotions of the lyrics. “World Of Love” ups the tempo again, sounding like downright twist-worthy early rock 'n' roll. Here Williams playfully insinuates sly expository slide twists after many of his vocal lines. “Weatherman” is another fast one, but the love has gone away this time. “The forecast is cloudy with a chance of you cryin’/I’m sick and tired of all your cheating and lying.” It’s a clever and catchy little song.
If You Change Your Mind
Hutto’s “If You Change Your Mind” is a slow blues augmented by guest pianist Marty Sammon, who provides a perfect foil for Williams’ desperate desires on vocal and guitar. “No Fast Food” is another clever way to say Williams will stand by his woman. “Why go out for hamburgers when at home I can eat prime steak?” he asks, with his guitar just salacious enough to make us really understand. “My Chains Are Gone” is a gorgeously complex mixture of emotions at the end of a love affair, unfolding slowly over guitar arpeggios and a moody organ. As Williams plays his solo, he captures love, sadness, confusion, and hope, sometimes more than one at a time.