Fans of the blues have much to be thankful for this holiday season as some important recordings have been released on vinyl and CD.
Confessin' The Blues is a wonderful collection curated by none other than members of The Rolling Stones. This is a fabulous primer designed to introduce new listeners to the American music form which shaped the sound of The Rolling Stones and a slew of rock and blues artists who came up the ranks during the electric blues explosion of the 1960s and 1970s.
There are many, many classics on Confessin' The Blues which includes key tracks by the biggest names in Blues and Rock music history like Howlin' Wolf, John Lee Hooker, Elmore James, Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, Big Bill Broonzy and Robert Johnson. But you will also hear (perhaps) less well known but equally influential artists like Slim Harpo, Jimmy Reed, Big Maceo, Eddie Taylor, Lightnin' Slim, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Amos Milburn and many others.
LP fans can choose to listen to this incredible music via two standard 12-inch two-LP sets (click here for Volume 1 and Volume 2) or a five-disc 10-inch vinyl LP super deluxe edition designed to look like a vintage set of 78 RPM discs from the 1940s and 1950s (when a lot of these recordings were made!). Just click on the highlighted title throughout this review to jump to that. Confessin' The Blues includes a wealth of photos and outstanding artwork. This is a really cool set to immerse yourself in, yet another benefit of physical media as you can't really get this specific experience from a download or streaming (quite literally as the set does not seem to be up on Tidal or HDTracks).
Most importantly, and especially as reissue vinyl goes, Confessin' The Blues sounds quite excellent. Many times when I hear blues reissues there are pretty obvious tell-tale signs of sloppy digital mastering, usually resulting in vocals sounding over compressed and unnatural, even harshly crunchy (if you will) to the ear. For the most part it seems someone paid attention to those details here when it came down to mastering this a collection (no information seems to be listed in the set, alas, at least on the 10-inch vinyl version which is what I have been listening to for this review). So, while I am not sure exactly how this collection was put together, you just know these recordings have likely traveled far and wide to get to this point from a multitude of different sources. So, the key thing here is that the mastering engineer made sure all the tracks play nicely next to one another as an end-to-end, track by track, listening experience. And in that respect, Confessin' The Blues is a winning listen.
Another nice benefit of this set is that 10 percent of the net receipts from sales of this collection will be donated to Willie Dixon's Blues Heaven Foundation (Registered as a 501(c) (3) non-profit organization in the United States). From their official website we learn: "Blues Heaven Foundation's mission is to help artists and musicians obtain what is rightfully theirs, and to educate both adults and children on the history of the Blues and the business of music. To achieve this mission, we have successfully executed several programs, including The Muddy Water's and Willie Dixon Scholarships, Music Clinics, Music in the Garden/Record Row Festival, and Emergency Assistance, and are looking to establish additional programs in the near future."
In addition to 10-inch and 12-inch long playing vinyl versions of Confessin' The Blues you can also get it on standard CDs (click here for that link). But really, you'll probably want to get your hands on the super deluxe edition -- what a great gift idea for the blues fan on your holiday shopping list! -- as it also includes 10-inch album sized black and white art card prints by noted blues illustrator Christoph Mueller. The album cover artwork itself was created by Rolling Stones guitarist -- and acclaimed painter! -- Ronnie Wood who has contributed his interpretation of a Bluesman to the set. It looks very much akin to some of the wild artwork that graced the covers of some folk, blues and jazz 78 sets back in the day (especially those by David Stone Martin).
Goin' Way Back is another joyous release for blues fans and of Muddy Waters in particular, a vinyl-exclusive release that came out on Record Store Day /Black Friday this year. This official / unofficial release is fascinating in that it was recorded by a fan who had befriended the band and gained permission to tape them. But as he spoke with them, the idea of an acoustic back porch styled recording came up and the artist and band apparently liked the concept. So instead of just recording a live concert, an impromptu field recording session was set up at the Port Arthur Street boarding house where the band was staying. Taped on portable gear in the living room area in a breakfast session, acccording to the album's liner notes Muddy apparently showed up for the session dressed in a purple velvet robe, slippers and hair net (protecting his legendary pompadour)! I wish there were photos from the session! It's a lovely warm sounding ambient recording, made on October 18, 1967 by producer Michael Nerenberg.
Goin' Way Back was released by Nettwerk Music Group as part of their Justin Time Essentials Collection of rare recordings by legendary artists. I'm looking forward to exploring more of this label's releases. This one is really very good, with quiet and well-centered vinyl and good mastering. The recording itself is very upfront, perhaps a bit too upfront for Muddy's majesty so don't be surprised to hear a bit of distortion at times on the vocals especially. I like to think that the recording engineers this were just too in awe of the artist to pay too close attention to the recording audio levels and just focused on creating a comfortable environment for them to perform.
I'll put it this way: if you like the legendary recordings of Robert Johnson from the 1930s, then I think you'll probably like the raw feel of this rare acoustic 50-year old 1967 session by Muddy Waters and his band.