Billy Boy Arnold with T.S. McPhee and the Groundhogs
Blue and Lonesome
Blues Boulevard Records
BluesWax Rating: 7 out of 10
A Chicago Blues Flashback to 1977
Billy Boy Arnold is the rare Chicago bluesman who hails from the Windy City itself. Schooled by the illustrious Sonny Boy Williamson I (John Lee Williamson), Arnold has had a long and distinguished career, attaining the esteem of his colleagues and blues aficionados if not the renown and commercial success of some of his fellow harmonica mavens. More popular for many years in Europe than in the U.S. — a familiar story; see, for example, Memphis Slim, Luther Allison, and Eric Bibb — Arnold is still touring and recording at age 77, burnishing his legacy.
Caveat: read the liner notes. They are in smaller print and less accessible than were those on our treasured old vinyl records, but worth reading in this case, as they reveal that this is actually a re-release of a 1977 recording, which apparently has never been available before in the U.S. Arnold recorded it with adept British guitarist TS McPhee and his Groundhogs trio in London in 1977.
The album showcases Arnold on 15 snappy tunes, 7 of them penned or arranged by him. Most are up-tempo and all display the classic electrified Chicago blues sound of guitar, harp, bass, and drums; no horns, no keyboard, no frills. Billy Boy’s singing is in good form, and his Mississippi saxophone stylings are rhythmically propulsive, generally eschewing lyricism for muscle and momentum.
There are a few glitches in the playlist. The opener, “Dirty Mother F…” (gee, can you guess?), lacks the witticism of a myriad of other blues songs about sex, and instead is crude and inane. There is little stretching of genre or variation of tempos. McPhee’s guitar contributions aren’t spotlighted, and while mostly appropriate are occasionally screechy and intrusive: this ain’t heavy metal, T.S. The rhythm section is solid but remains backdrop
Three of the songs include brief spoken intros wherein Arnold directs the band (and in one instance announces that he’s leaving to urinate). A couple of the tunes invoke the sound of early, pre-commercial Fleetwood Mac when it was a true blues band in the late 1960s. Echoes are heard of the harmonica styles of not only Sonny Boy I, but also Junior Wells and Carey Bell. There’s even a tune, “Eldorado Cadillac,” reminiscent of the 1950′s rock born of blues and typified by Bo Diddley, with whom Arnold collaborated way back then.
Standouts tunes: “Blue and Lonesome,” an extended slow blues with great harmonica playing; “Just a Dream,” a Big Bill Broonzy composition featuring an evocative vocal by Billy Boy; and “Sweet Miss Bea,” an absolutely irresistible straight-ahead rockin’ Chicago stomp that will have you out of your seat!
Steve Daniels is a contributing writer at BluesWax.
About the Author: