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Ted Hawkins
The Ted Hawkins Suffer No More
(Rhino)

Ted Hawkins
The Final Tour
(Evidence)

In many ways the late Ted Hawkins, who spent the bulk of his career singing for tips on the Venice Beach boardwalk just outside Los Angeles, embodies the stuff of a blues romantic's sweetest dreams, and not just because he's dead. He recorded one single in the mid-Sixties that sank without a trace; he did time in prison (for flashing kids, no less); his first album was cut in 1971 but held until 1982 while he served his sentence; the longplayers issued on independent labels upon his return to society never found an audience wide enough to lift him from obscurity; and even when he did get a shot at the big leagues -- when DGC released the masterful The Next Hundred Years in 1994 -- the album broadened his fan base only slightly more than the smaller-scaled efforts on indie labels such as Rounder, PT, and Evidence.

But Hawkins was hardly a stereotype; rather, he was arguably the most distinctive blues singer to emerge since Rounder put out those early-Seventies sessions as 1982's Watch Your Step. Two new collections, Rhino's career-spanning The Ted Hawkins Suffer No More and Evidence's live disc The Final Tour, culled from Hawkins's 1994 road trip, expertly showcase what set the man apart from the average blues and soul journeyman: the hard grit and rough grain of his voice, which was infused with the melismatic flair of both Sam Cooke and Otis Redding; his solid if basic acoustic guitar work, which was a perfect match for his forthright vocals; and most important, the intimacy and evocativeness of his own songwriting and his ability to turn other artists' material into his own.

As both Suffer No More and The Final Tour prove, Hawkins's gifts as an interpreter approached the hallowed genius of Jerry Lee Lewis: Literally, the man could -- and most often did -- sing anything and make it work. Like the bluesmen of the pre- and postwar era who sang on street corners for spare change, Hawkins always kept an ear to what his boardwalk audience wanted to hear, and he drew from that expansive repertoire whenever a producer came courting him for a record deal. That repertoire was vast and seemingly bottomless, encompassing the urbane R&B of Brook Benton ("I Got What I Wanted"), the boozy honky-tonk of Webb Pierce ("There Stands the Glass"), the sweet sauntering soul of Cooke ("Having a Party"), the autobiographical musings of Jesse Winchester ("Biloxi"), and the most searching and yearning of John Fogerty's work with Creedence Clearwater Revival ("Long As I Can See the Light"). And in nearly every case, Hawkins's covers were definitive, from the downright spooky "Biloxi" to "I Got What I Wanted," in which he turns Benton's string-laden finger-popper into a meditative summary of regret and loss.

What was most remarkable about Hawkins's art, however, was how seamlessly he incorporated others' material into his stockpile of dramatic, gut-wrenching originals, and both Suffer and Tour include some of his best songs: "The Lost Ones" and "The Good and the Bad," masterful articulations of, respectively, economic and emotional poverty; "Strange Conversation," the brooding opener from the DGC disc; the oddly compassionate "Sorry You're Sick," in which he tends to an alcoholic lover by offering to run to the liquor store; and the darkly humorous "Bad Dog." And though the Rhino set includes a pair of fine previously unissued originals from an early-Nineties session (not to mention his impossibly rare 1966 debut single "Whole Lot of Women"), there are a few baffling omissions, most notably "There Stands the Glass," "Long As I Can See the Light," the rolling Southern soul burner "Bring It On Home Daddy" (from the Rounder debut), and "The Ladder of Success," from the DGC album and one of the greatest gospel-fueled songs of social inequity and dignified rage of the past twenty years.

Those songs are all present on The Final Tour, each sung with even more raw power and forcefulness than he brought to their studio counterparts. Plus you get ace readings of Little Johnnie Taylor's "Part Time Love," Hawkins's own "Big Things" and "Revenge of Scorpio," and the warmth, grace, and subtly tormented intensity that defined his live sets. Which means that the Evidence disc is the one to grab first, but whether you opt for it or Rhino's hodgepodge, as soon as you hear one you'll want the other. Despite the overlap of material on Suffer No More and The Final Tour (as well as on the six albums released during his lifetime), it's impossible to own too much Ted Hawkins.

-- John Floyd

Pearl Jam
Yield
(Epic)

What a difference a few million fewer units moved makes. When Pearl Jam's 1996 No Code floundered on the charts ("floundered" being a relative term -- it sold more than a million copies), it was as if the world that had previously established the band as the flannel-clad kings of Nineties rock was finally moving on. Perhaps that was the best thing that could have happened to Pearl Jam, liberating the last of Seattle's great grunge trinity (Nirvana and Soundgarden rounding out the trio) from its high-pressure, top-of-the-heap status. The group took a deep breath, relaxed, and delivered Yield, its fifth overall album, and maybe its first genuinely great one.

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