From Clarksdale to Heaven
Remembering John Lee Hooker
John Lee Hooker passed away in June of 2001, and when he left, he took the boogie with him. A lifetime playing the blues left us with a legacy of deceptively simple sounding music, seemingly high on feeling and groove, but sounding almost basic in its playing. Ha. Watching Hooker play was an exercise in Zen blues. He barely moved his hands, his left hand shaping chords almost entirely below the third fret of the guitar, his right hand idly flicking the strings. What that created, however, was a engulfing river of mojo that many have tried to copy, but few have come close. On this tribute to the great man, some of the greatest musicians around pay homage to the man with the sound, and while the record works great as a collection of good players making good music, it fails completely as a “remembrance” of John Lee Hooker. Largely performing works either written by or associated with Hooker, pickers such as Jeff Beck, Peter Green, Jack Bruce, Gary Moore and others capture some nice moments, but never come close to sounding for an instant like Hooker.
Jeff Beck’s version of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” is a prime example. Based on a Hooker arrangement and featuring the gospel styling of the Kingdom Choir, Jeff’s greasy guitar tone and slippery rhythmic style sound completely out of place, and actually detracts from the song as a whole. Not as bad as newcomer Vince Converse on “Bad Like Jesse James,” who seems to think that John Lee Hooker is best honored with dive-bomb guitar squeals and distorted tones. Nope. Old schoolers such as Peter Green (on a good “Crawlin’ King Snake”) or former Stones guitarist Mick Taylor on “This Is Hip” stick closer to the facts of the matter, and come off sounding a bit better. But all is erased on the last track, a previously unreleased Hooker cut, a version of Jimi Hendrix’s “Red House” recorded with Booker T. Jones on organ and Randy California on guitar. Hooker takes the Voodoo Child’s attempt at the blues back to Chicago, and does it without breaking a sweat. That John Lee Hooker thump and shake is evident from the first notes, and he does in 30 seconds what the previous hour of music can’t achieve: Boogie Chillun. Final verdict? Great collection of songs, bad tribute.
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