Roosting Blues

The mock primitive factor (hereafter referred to as mock prim) in blues is very high. Mock prim is that racial/racist double bind that says the best black music is that which is made by African Americans living in the rural South, preferably in Mississippi. Mock prim values the purist element in blues; references to “true blues” are frequently heard in mock prim circles. Besides regional origin and context, what makes blues true blues? Does it have to sound raw, unpolished, sloppy, and, um, primitive to qualify as true blues? Such questions veer perilously close to that other racist myth, that of the Southern black man as noble savage with musical and sexual powers that set him apart from other men, particularly Southern white males. Will any of these questions or contradictions be resolved in this piece? Of course not. But when you're dealing with blues, all these unresolvable issues keep popping up. Regarding blues, race and region will always figure into the equation.Perhaps the question should be, can a reinvigorated purist blues label like Rooster Blues relaunch itself aesthetically and commercially in spite of all these vexing race ponderings? Can such a label produce recordings that simply sound good, thereby putting these questions and contradictions to rest for the moment? On the strength of their four latest releases the answer would be, “Hell yeah.” Established in Chicago in 1980 by Living Blues magazine cofounder Jim O'Neal, the label spent time in the Mississippi Delta before its recent move to Kansas City, Missouri. O'Neal sold the label to Robert Johnson (yep, that's his real name) of Kansas City last year and he remains onboard as an A&R man for the label, as well as providing producer duties from time to time.

What is particularly interesting in the label's approach is that O'Neal does not see himself as a record producer. Since the label's founding O'Neal has labored to capture often unknown blues artists in a natural (uh oh, that language problem again) performance setting, where he simply documents the artist without imposing a producer's personal vision or label identity (à la Bruce Iglauer and Alligator Records) on the musicians being recorded. In a way it's a bit like doing field recording, except that these recordings are being released commercially and the artists signed to the label will actually be paid session fees and royalties (similar to what Alan Lomax did for the Library of Congress in the Forties) but without the plantation mentality that sometimes accompanied such recording efforts.

Rooster's approach is heavily democratic, as is reflected in its usual practice of doing a recording with one artist and then moving on to another act with its next release. It is much more difficult to promote records by artists when there will not be a follow-up release. O'Neal and Rooster Blues follow a more difficult path of trying to uncover and give exposure to the widest range of worthy unknowns. All this makes the label a worthy and honorable endeavor, but what do their four new releases sound like?

Arkansan Lonnie Shields offers a set of typical soul-inflected blues tunes on Midnight Delight. At times it comes too close to the dreaded Alligator Records assembly-line, which has done much to make modern blues so dull sonically. Fortunately his songwriting and performing skills are able to overcome the sometimes frosty production sound. Shields did not grow up listening to or performing blues; his background was in funk and gospel. A meeting with drummer Sam Carr led to Shields's interest in the blues form, and Carr has gone on to serve as the young man's mentor. Shields demonstrates how easily funk and soul influences can be adapted in a blues context. Shame about the production though.

Former truck driver James “Super Chikan” Johnson provides an antidote to Shields's somewhat standard approach on Blues Comes Home to Roost. Super Chikan is definitely unique. His songwriting comes close to being surreal at times, with odd takes on everything from small-town life (“Down in the Delta”) to sex (“Captain Love Juice” and “Camel Toe” are saucy, vulgar, and downright weird). Super Chikan does not adhere to the standard verse/chorus approach in his compositions; they often are wordy and nonsensical. As the late rockabilly singer Charlie Feathers was fond of saying about his friend, the late Junior Kimbrough, Super Chikan is the “onliest one.” Too true, too true.

Originally recorded in 1982, the re-release of Magic Slim's Grand Slam sounds great on CD, reminding listeners of how powerful Chicago blues can be when done well. Sounding like a cross between Howlin' Wolf and Hound Dog Taylor, Magic Slim turns in one burning performance after another on this recording. The album sounds as though it was a particularly well-paced live set done in the studio. If Rooster Blues has any outtakes from this session lying around, they would be wise to release that too. Powerful stuff.

Finally, there is the Rooster Blues Records 20th Anniversary Sampler, with nineteen tracks documenting the label's first sonic rumblings as well as its current rebirth. The record hangs together surprisingly well, sounding like a programmed album rather than a mere label sampler. It is more than an introduction to the Rooster's history or a promotional record; it is a darn fine recording in its own right.

Fifteen full-length CDs -- new recordings and reissues -- are scheduled for release on Rooster Blues this year. More than one record label has been revived in recent years with less than stellar results. It looks as though the people at Rooster Blues did it right the first time around and will continue to do so in the future. Now that's a strange approach to take in the music business these days.

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Ross Johnson