“Yeah, he sound pretty nice—but it don’t sound like it used to sound!”
I know my Howlin’ Wolf and Bo Diddley classic sides, but generally electric blues is not my thing. I’m particularly skeptical of the contrived gathering of giants a la the Million Dollar Quartet or the aggrandized Super Session. But there’s also nothing wrong with throwing a party and letting the tape roll. The main reason I’m engaging with it now is that my pal recently reissued this LP and I tend to trust his sensibility and dutifully support his projects. This will be my second listen but it’s effectively new-to-me.
It starts with a moan and for a moment sounds like we’re in for a work song, but a wild scream of joy (probably Cookie Vee from Bo’s band) changes the tune very quickly. It’s the Howlin’ Wolf show for a good minute or so, and “Long Distance Call” is basically a rewrite of his “Moanin’ At Midnight” (with a bit of “I Asked for Water” thrown in). It chugs along fine with Bo laying a wild guitar atop and hijacking it for a spell (“step aside and let a man sing”) into his own “You Don’t Love Me.” Such mashups are fair game, for next we get a medley of Bo’s “Ooh Baby & Wrecking My Love Life” and Cookie gets to do some actual singing, not just ecstatic hollering. It’s all loose and fun, with the legends egging each other on, the ball-breaking clearly impromptu with a lot of stalling and shouting “What?” They talk all over each other on “Sweet Little Angel” with more nasty noise from Bo and pianist Otis Spann called out by name—but nobody singularly gets to shine under these conditions.
It was Howlin’ Wolf who popularized “Spoonful” and here he reclaims it from the white garage rock bands who drove it into the ground in the short year or two prior. He’s reluctant to share verses even with his buddies, protesting “you don’t know nothing about that spoonful!” Normally commanding on his own, Muddy is the most subdued presence here, being aged between the grand old Wolf and the upstart Bo, who clearly relish most the goading of each other. “Diddley Daddy” gets off to a wobbly start, with the boys trying to occupy the same bars where the background singers are doing their thing. There are other clumsy cues until Bo manages to pass it off to Wolf, with Muddy getting it for a time before it’s returned to its rightful owner. “Little Red Rooster” begins as a lonesome porch blues and kicks in tentatively at first but soon simmers nicely with some confident piano and tasteful electric guitar. It’s the most sympathetic backing these guys get, but an album’s worth of joshin’ gets to wear thin by the end, and “Rooster” fades after Bo awkwardly declines to take a verse (“I better let y’all alone.”). I’ve heard of the Hesitating Blues but this is all a bit much. All three sound more assured on the closer “Goin’ Down Slow” which seems be the lone song they may have run through once earlier that day (and probably just to set levels) with Bo in particular delivering a slayingly mournful verse. There’s something to be said for spontaneity, but as a recorded document I also want what’s locked into the groove to be somewhat authoritative and resilient to replays. I’ll concede it’s scrappy fun but wouldn’t call it everyday listening, though diverting enough for the occasional Sunday afternoon spin.