When blues guitarist Luther Allison returned to the United States in the mid-1990s to resume a stateside career that had mostly been in hibernation since his move to France in 1980, the artist hadn't released a record in the U.S. in fifteen years. A deal with Alligator Records would result in the guitarist's acclaimed 1994 album Soul Fixin' Man, his re-entry into the domestic blues scene that would earn Allison four W.C. Handy Awards. Follow up albums for the label like 1995's Blue Streak and 1997's Reckless would cement Allison's status as one of the best performers and guitarists in the blues.
Live At Chicago captures Luther Allison's storied performance at the June 1995 Chicago Blues Festival. Backed by the talented James Solberg Band, with Wayne Jackson and Andrew Love of the Memphis Horns providing a bit of flash, the legendary blues guitarist dove headfirst into what would become known as the performance of a lifetime. Roaring through a set list that, while short on quantity, was brimming over with passion, fire, and energy, Allison began writing the final chapter of his career with the sort of 110% onstage commitment to the blues that would become his legacy.
Luther Allison's Live In Chicago
Allison had something to prove that afternoon in the Windy City, and he cut loose with a gale force blast from the very beginning, blowing right into "Soul Fixin' Man" after the intro. Above a modified shuffle, backed by the icy cool Memphis Horns, Allison's blustery vocals are matched by his typical scorched-earth fretwork, itself part Chicago blues elegance, part bristling rock 'n' roll abandon. Allison follows with "Cherry Red Wine," his signature song and perhaps the best ever written about the damages of alcoholism. This one is pure-D blues, Allison's tortured vocals met by a storm of soulful licks and just a measure of Mike Vlahakis' keyboards around the edges.
Allison's "Bad Love" is a mid-tempo blues romp stretched out to the ten-minute mark by an extended jam that offers up plenty of Allison's fiery guitarplay. The song starts out with the singer's gruff, soulful vocals before evolving into a master class on blues guitar, Allison's imaginative solos capturing the emotion of the song, riding high above the rhythmic instrumentation, the Memphis Horns adding a little flavor to the mix with weeping blasts. It's Allison's show, however, and his dancing tones fly across the soundtrack like a man possessed. The only minor flaw is a call-and-response portion of the song that, while it may have been entertaining to witness live, is less so on record.
Chicago Blues Jam
Although Allison is best-known as a single-note lead player, not unlike his West Side idols Otis Rush and Magic Sam, he was also a damn fine slide-guitar player, as shown by his raucous cover of "It Hurts Me Too," classic Chicago blues by Tampa Red by way of Elmore James. A slow-burning blues grinder with just a bit of barrelhouse piano playing behind his growling vocals, Allison's slideplay is esquisite, howling and gnashing across the groove. The festival performance closes out with a rowdy blues jam, Allison joining Rush and Chicago scene mainstay Eddie C. Campbell on a medley of B.B. King's "Gambler's Blues" and "Sweet Little Angel." The performance is pure magic, a "must hear" for any fan of blues guitar, the three men rockin' the stage, swapping solos and imbuing the songs with no little love and energy.
While most labels would be content with releasing an album the quality of Live In Chicago as a single-disc set, Alligator always delivers a little more for the fans. Live In Chicago offers up a second disc of live Luther, including six tracks captured at a November 1995 show at Buddy Guy's Legends club that were originally broadcast live on WXRT-FM radio, and four tracks from a Lincoln, Nebraska show circa 1997. Both sets show the guitarist at the top of his form.
Buddy Guy's Legends
The initial taste of the Legends' show appears on the album's first disc. A houserockin' cover of Hound Dog Taylor's classic "Give Me Back My Wig" further displays Allison's slide-guitar prowess, the up-tempo performance teetering on the edge with incendiary fretwork, crashing piano notes, and locomotive drumbeats. The party continues with disc two's "All The King's Horses," a powerful mid-tempo blues-rock wildfire that, at times, smolders with great intensity and burns with intense heat. Allison's soulful, mournful vocals are equaled only by his energetic solos, which distill the blues down to its purest form. The ballad "Think With Your Heart," while a much slower-paced song, is nonetheless cut from the same cloth. Allison delivers a potent, soulful vocal performance in the vein of Otis Redding, torch-song tears matched by mournful, weeping guitar.
Of the Nebraska tracks, the joyous "Party Time," which kicks off the second disc, is a perfect example of Allison's much-lauded work ethic. The band is loose, the music pours out like wine, and Allison is ready to rock, his hearty vocals underlined by his always energetic guitarplay. As the band rolls behind, Allison pours his heart and soul into the performance. Ditto for "Will It Ever Change?", an up-tempo flamethrower with a rollicking beat, heavy guitar riffing, rough 'n' tumble vocals, and razor-sharp licks issuing from Allison's guitar like bullets from a machinegun. Listening to the energy and passion of these 1997 tracks, it's hard to believe that Allison had only a few months to live before cancer would take his life.
The Reverend's Bottom Line
Luther Allison remains one of the most underrated of legends, a soulful singer capable of great emotion and power and a guitarist with an undeniable rock music influence that would stretch the boundaries of Chicago blues and drag the style, kicking and screaming, into the 1990s. Live In Chicago represents not only a sort of homecoming for the talented guitarist, but also the kind of performance on which legends are built. Undeniably one of the best live albums in the history of the genre, Allison's Live In Chicago belongs on the shelf of every blues fan. (Alligator Records, released 1999)
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