16
May
16

From the Shelf: Various Artists – Louisiana Swamp Blues

From the Shelf: Various Artists – Louisiana Swamp Blues (Capitol, 1996)

 

In the mid-90s, Capitol released a series of archival blues records. Most of them featured the heavy-hitters of the 60s blues revival (Son House, Mississippi Fred McDowell, etc) but a few took deep looks into specific scenes. There’s one about Kansas City artists, another about Texas guitar players. But probably the weirdest and coolest one is the look at Louisiana artists: Louisiana Swamp Blues.

 

Right from the cover you know you’re in for a treat: there’s no artist or even a generic picture of people playing. It’s an accordion, surrounded by a kind of bright aura, and an alligator with a big grin. It’s fitting: accordions dominate the music, which is swampy, damp and raucous. Oh man, is this stuff wild.

 

There are five artists focused on for this record: Guitar Slim, Clarence “Bon Ton” Garlow, Boo Breeding, Clifton Chenier and Boo Zoo Chavis. The only name that’s especially familiar is probably Guitar Slim, who played hard, lived harder and died at 32. He’s best remembered now for experimenting with distorting his electric guitar and being an influence on guitarists as diverse as Frank Zappa, Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughn. But that came a little later: the stuff here is from early in his career and is relatively straight-ahead and bluesy. I like it, but the focus here is more on him as a performer (singing and playing), not just his guitar skills. Still, there are some cool stories in the liner notes, like how he’d use a huge guitar cord and play while walking around the club, even walking into the bathroom while playing.

The other name that’s maybe familiar is Clifton Chenier, whose long career playing zydeco lasted into the late 1980s. He’s represented here with several early singles, including “Louisiana Stomp” and “Country Bred,” both of which sound like they were recorded at a house party and certainly fueled some of them: Robert Pete’s drums crash, Morrie Chenier’s guitar chugs away in the background and Chenier’s accordion and hoarse shouting goes all over the place: it moans, groans and sounds downright gritty at times. On songs like “Rockin’ Hop,” he trades leads with the guitar; it’s an amazing mix of R&B, blues and Cajun and to my mind it’s way less sterile than later zydeco stuff you see now on Rounder. It’s brimming with energy in the same way early, lo-fi singles by Gary US Bonds still sound.

The other artists here aren’t as well known, I think (I’m hardly a zydeco expert, in case you haven’t noticed). Garlow, for example, was a guy who played a little guitar and used to get drunk and sit in with bands: in the liner notes, he explains getting his break after “the booze told me I could play as good as the guy up there, so I asked to sit in.” It’s worked pretty well.

The booze may not have worked as well for Boo Zoo Chavis. Both sides of a 1955 single of his close out the record. It’s, um, pretty wild. The band is kind of a mess, stumbling all over time changes and generally sounding like they’re not playing in the same room, and according to the liners, the sessions were also: during recording, the producer heard a crash; when he went in to check after the take finished, Chavis had fallen off a chair but kept playing while lying on the floor. Both sides of his single are the kind of thing I can’t imagine anyone releasing today, but they’re also charming in their own, raucous and dissonant way: it’s party music, played by some guys who were probably partying before they started recording. I kinda like it.

 

Lastly, there’s Boo Breeding, who is kind of a mystery in the liner notes: it’s alleged to be an alias of Chavis’, but they also discount the rumour; Allmusic, Wikipedia and other sites have no information on the guy. So his music has to speak for him: it’s 50s blues, alternately slow and brooding or quick and energetic. There’s some nice piano playing and singing, but it won’t convince the unconverted.

 

As a set, this record does a pretty decent job. I can’t say I’m an expert on this scene, so I don’t know if it does a good job distilling the highlights into a package or it’s it just a collection of loosely related sides who were all owned by Capitol records. In a way, it doesn’t matter: the music here is pretty good, even at it’s weakest, and at it’s best, it’s a compelling mix of energy, playing and fun. I’d definitely recommend it, particularly the sides by Chenier. The CD is out of print and can get a little expensive. 4.5/5

 

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