Among the hottest (and most welcome) trends in the recording industry (what’s left of it) is to take vintage live performances and issue them as a CD/DVD set. Blues fans, in particular, have benefitted from this marketing plan in recent years with aural-video archival packages featuring vintage early ‘80s sessions of Stevie Ray Vaughan and Albert King and the Rolling Stones jamming at Chicago’s fabled Checkerboard Lounge with Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy and Junior Wells.
The “Live from Austin, TX” series, if it doesn’t quite scale those Olympian heights, is nonetheless a joy and a find. The CD/DVD combos released on New West Records are drawn from decades of PBS’ “Austin City Limits” programs and generally run to the country-rock-Americana sound that so typifies the Texas capital.
That said, the handful of blues albums/videos in the collection are sure to please. I recently came across the Albert Collins set and have been impressed with the quality both of the production and the performer.
Collins, in my opinion, remains a terribly overlooked and underappreciated blues guitarist-vocalist. Raised in Texas and schooled in the T-Bone Walker tradition, he struggled in obscurity until signing with Alligator in the mid-‘70s. He cut a series of discs for that Chicago label – “Ice Pickin' (1978), “Frostbite” (1980), “Frozen Alive (1981), “Don't Lose Your Cool” (1983), “Live In Japan” 1984) and “Cold Snap” (1986) – that to me capture the zeitgeist of the ‘80s blues boom. I had the pleasure of seeing Collins perform live at the Sacramento Blues Festival in 1992 or ’93, not long before his death.
Collins lives again thanks to his “Live in Austin, TX” release and the set is a pleasure for both the ear and eye. Originals dominate these discs (“Iceman,” “Frosty,” “Travelin’ South”) although Collins acknowledges his Texas roots with a take on Walker’s “The Things That I Used to Do.” Great band, too, featuring Johnny B. Gayden (bass), Soko Richardson (drums) and Reese Wynans (organ) along with a four-piece horn section.
Here’s a look at the blues discs in the series.
ALBERT COLLINS: They called him the “The Ice Man” and “The Master of the Telecaster,” but above all else, Albert Collins was a consummate Texas bluesman. He was born in the tiny east Texas town of Leona, but he grew up in the infamous Third Ward of Houston, where he picked a little acoustic guitar around his cousin Lightnin’ Hopkins and fellow future guitarists Johnny Copeland and Johnny “Guitar” Watson. “Ice Man” or not, Albert was on fire the night of his taping on October 28, 1991.
ROY BUCHANAN: This performance, captured on the "Austin City Limits" stage on November 15, 1976, shows Roy Buchanan in his prime at the age of 37. It may well be the best high-quality audio/video recording of his complete performance known to exist.
CLARENCE "GATEMOUTH" BROWN: Suffice it to say, in all of music there was only one Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown. Gatemouth was a one-man cauldron of sonic intensity and originality unmatched by anyone before or since. Still, born in Louisiana, raised in Texas and bouncing around the Texas circuit explains a lot. Gate borrowed heavily from the Big Band sound, and his music could swing with the best of them, as he demonstrates on “Take the A Train” in this show, recorded on February 6, 1996 (the last of his four appearances on "Austin City Limits").
SUSAN TEDESCHI: Susan Tedeschi’s debut album earned her a prestigious Grammy nomination for Best New Artist in 2000 (she lost to Christina Aguilera!). She sounds like part Bonnie Raitt, part Janis Joplin, part Aretha Franklin, yet she can belt out a song without losing control in a way that gives her an edge that no other singer can compare to. Add to her vocal prowess, her guitar slinger skills and you have a rare combination in a contemporary female performer. Recorded in 2003, Tedeschi’s performance is the essence of what "Austin City Limits" is all about, drawing from blues, rock, soul and funk. But what she does best comes from deep within her heart and soul.
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