Truth be told, most blues-related Christmas gifts are depressing and not just because they're the blues. Current players seem content to substitute instrumental finagling for true passion, but several late-year releases from pioneers of the genre are here to make 12-bar melancholy sound good during the holidays.
The best of Chicago and New Orleans blues is represented this season with classic reissues and unreleased vault material. Big Mama Thornton's In Europe is a pristine-sounding reissue of a 1965 Arhoolie release with six extra cuts recorded at the same concert. Fronting a virtual all-star lineup of blues veterans (Buddy Guy on guitar, Fred Below on drums, Jimmy Robinson on bass), Thornton is in rare wailing form throughout. Tackling blues standards (Willie Dixon's legendary "Little Red Rooster," Leiber and Stroller's "Hound Dog") along with some of her best originals (the raucous "Down Home Shake Down"), this live set is a valuable document of Thornton's enduring importance.
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Billy Boy Arnold's Consolidated Mojo is a 1992 recording that, for whatever reason, is just now seeing the light of day. Rerecording some of his most celebrated cuts from the '50s (Arnold's most popular single "I Wish You Would" and the classic lament "I Ain't Got You") and taking sturdy aim at Bo Diddley's "I'm a Man" (Arnold played harmonica on the original), this is a rare performer improving with age and a judicious look back at youthful celebrations and indiscretions.
Hubert Sumlin was the Chicago blues guitarist, playing on the most renowned recordings of both Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf. His influence on Hendrix and countless others can be heard throughout Hubert Sumlin's House Party, a straight-up reissue of a 1987 release. Besides prominently displaying his novel plucking style, the disc is a treasure trove of self-pitying moaners such as "A Soul That's Been Abused" and "Poor Me, Pour Me."
Smithsonian Folkways' reissue of Snooks Eaglin's New Orleans Street Singer is probably the best buy, featuring 68 minutes and eight previously unreleased gems of lovely, solo acoustic blues. Originally recorded in 1958, the new release cleans up the master tapes, providing an impressive sonic update of some of the best Southern folk blues of any period. Eaglin's playing and singing draws inspiration equally from his Chicago forefathers and New Orleans' rich musical heritage.
Whether listened to separately or as a group, these four releases prove the overwhelming originality of the best of American music. Although few, if any, current blues artists reach these heights, the evidence is there--the inspiration remains and the blueprints can be followed. Hey, Santa--stuff Steve Vai's stocking with these, please.