Guitarist Luther Allison is one of the truly underrated instrumentalists in the blues. Moving to Chicago from Arkansas as a teen, he was already familiar with the blues before he landed in a West Side neighborhood that included artists like Magic Sam and Otis Rush. Allison apprenticed under blues greats like Muddy Waters, but after moving to France in 1980, Allison's U.S. presence dwindled to a handful of annual festival performances. Although the guitarist remained a vital, energetic performer until his death, Allison's contributions are often overshadowed by contemporaries like Lonnie Brooks and Son Seals.
Just weeks before his death in August 1997, Allison appeared at the Montreal Jazz Festival on July 4th, a performance taped for posterity by Canadian TV for later broadcast. Songs From The Road is a two-disc, specially-priced CD/DVD set of that performance by the talented Allison, the audio portion featuring ten songs, the DVD portion including bonus footage of an interview with Allison. It's a heck of a show, Allison's guitar slashing through the blues like nobody's business, and the only gripe I have is that it's taken this long to release the performance.
Luther Allison's Songs From The Road
The ten tracks to be found on Songs From The Road are generally up-tempo, guitar-driven houserockin' style blues for the fan that likes their music drenched in tone and ringing chords. Allison is more than an incendiary string-bender, however, as evidenced by the album's opening track, "Cancel My Check." A hearty tune with a raucous soundtrack comprised of furious drumbeats and a walking bass line, Allison's gruff vocals are laid down atop some sophisticated fretwork that brings some jazzy-elegance and tone to the song's up-from-the-streets Chicago blues sound.
Although Songs From The Road isn't exactly a "greatest hits" live collection, it features many of Allison's long-time, crowd-pleasing faves, songs such as the slow-paced "Living In The House Of The Blues." A blues torchsong in the best tearjerking tradition, Allison's vocals here are quite soulful, each line punctuated by his fiery guitarplay. Mike Vlahakis' keyboard strokes play off of Allison's guitar licks for maximum effect, while drummer Rob Stupka bangs the cans with reckless aplomb, smacking the cymbal now and then for added emphasis. This is the sort of performance that would get a juke-joint crowd stoked up and ready to roll, and it has the same affect on the festival audience.
Cherry Red Wine
Opening with some good old-fashioned keyboard vamping, Allison's guitar kicks in a lick to jump-start "Will It Ever Change," a bluesy shuffle with some nice interplay between Allison's energetic leads and guitarist James Solberg's intricate rhythm patterns. Allison's red-hot solo, about a third of the way through the extended seven-minute jam, sets the house on fire, but it's about half-way through the song that he really cranks up the siren with a bit of six-string pyrotechnics that will set any blues-rock aficionado on their ear. "Cherry Red Wine" is probably Allison's signature song, and certainly as close as he ever came to a hit, and he recreates it here with amazing intensity, his guitar channeling passion, soul, and raw emotion through the bent strings and battered fretboard. Solberg also tears off an incredibly nuanced and smoldering solo on the song.
If Songs From The Road's ten tracks of pure blues goodness, Luther Allison-style, isn't enough to satiate your greedy little ears, Thomas Ruf – Allison's former manager, friend, and label head – has included a DVD culled from the original Canadian TV broadcast of the guitarist's performance. The DVD includes six songs from the CD, including the socially-conscious "Move From The Hood," a 1970s-styled, old-school blues romp with plenty of searing guitar, honky-tonk piano, and sturdy rhythm. A lengthy, 23-minute interview with Allison provides insight into the artist's intellect and love of the blues, and his comments on the integration of rock, blues, and jazz music within a single fan base are curiously prescient.
The Reverend's Bottom Line
Luther Allison was a great blues guitarist, capable of both down-n-dirty juke-joint jive and stunning moments of transcendent brilliance. Witnessing, as it tragically turned out, this final recorded performance of the too-often overlooked artist; it's hard to believe that he would die shortly thereafter. Songs From The Road documents a heartfelt and dynamic performance by a true blues lifer, an artist that poured his heart and soul into each and every song until he was certain that every fan in the audience was satisfied. If you're unfamiliar with the talent and charisma of Luther Allison, Songs From The Road is guaranteed to move you to discover the other underrated blues gems in Allison's back catalog. (Ruf Records, released February 9, 2010)
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