John Lee Hooker
Hooker
2006
A



rarely has so much done with so little. At least that's the standard line. John Lee Hooker took one chord, a foot-stomp, and a powerful voice and shook us every time. That's not exactly untrue, but it doesn't cover the full spectrum of Hooker's work either. It's not as if you can remain motionless and keep going forward, especially if your recording career spans 50 years. Hooker, a four-disc box set, shows that the man had some flexibility in his sound. And that all he really needed was one riff to turn his tales around.

The first disc focuses on Hooker's solo work, probably the most important stretch of his career. It begins with the landmark cut, "Boogie Chillen'." The track, recorded in 1948, not only sets the Hooker template, it also perfects it. Hooker plays a simple guitar riff and speak-sings the story of his discovery of boogie-woogie. Nothing could be more basic, or more memorable. Much of his early music involves working songs out around this style, tracks like "Weeping Willow Boogie," "Crawling King Snake," and "John L's House Rent Boogie." Without hearing the loosely-structured music, it's hard to understand how it works so well. The heavily rhythmic guitar work rarely shines, yet its groove makes a perfect accompaniment to Hooker's emotive voice.

As engaging as he was as a solo performer, Hooker could also succeed in a full-band setting. These recordings, starting on disc two, feel less idiosyncratic and are more uneven than his early solo cuts. Even so, he never falters completely, and he performs his other marquee number as part of a septet. Including bass genius James Jamerson and pianist "Ivy" Joe Hunter, the group delivers perfection with "Boom Boom." The guitar plays a simple lead that the band responds to, but when Hooker's vocal comes in, the two instrumental parts combine to respond to him. The song builds very quickly and turns over to the singer with no release. Capture this riff and the one from "Boogie Chillen'" and you're pretty much set to tackle the blues or the rock 'n' roll world.

By the early 1960s, Hooker's become entangled with the rock scene as well as the British blues revival. While he adapted to performing with groups like Canned Heat, his vocal delivery always let him stand out. He never lost his touch with the dirty blues, though, as performances here with Buddy Guy and Muddy Waters attest. "King of the World," recorded live with Guy at the 1965 American Folk Blues Festival, carries a spectral vibe, with the two artists matching each other perfectly to sustain the unique mood. The following track in the set, "I'm Bad Like Jesse James" came a year later on a live album with Waters. Hooker goes to the dark side, with a threatening performance that would give Nick Cave nightmares.

Hooker's finest performances with other stars come on disc four, which is made up almost entirely of collaborations with colleagues and admirers like Robert Cray, Van Morrison, Carlos Santana, and Eric Clapton (the solo "Tupelo" feels misplaced and inessential). One of his career peaks comes in 1988, 40 years after the start of his recording career, when he duets with Bonnie Raitt on "I'm in the Mood." The Grammy-winning cut allows interplay between the two vocalists, and Raitt's guitar work keeps the restrained aesthetic while pushing the emotional sense of lust and loneliness as far as her voice does. The pairing creates a fuller atmosphere than even the original 1951 version.

The other guests on these tracks turn in solid performances without stealing the show away from Hooker. Cray makes a natural fit, but Santana and Morrison provide the other highlights here, with the former's guitar work on the Latin-tinged "The Healer" comes closest to matching Raitt's success as musical partner. Morrison shines on "Don't Look Back," a subdued, moving number that also features Charles Brown on piano. Hooker's spoken "not bad" marks the set's biggest understatement.

The dedication of nearly an entire disc to collaborations, of course, underscores Hooker's influence on a variety of genres. While obvious, the statement should be made, but this collection doesn't matter only as a catalog of influential work. It matters because it's contains excellent work. Hooker has over 50 albums and even more compilations available, so it's hardly the final statement on his career, but with quality touches on his major phases, Hooker makes for an authoritative overview.



Reviewed by: Justin Cober-Lake
Reviewed on: 2006-10-31
Comments (1)

 
Today on Stylus
Reviews
October 31st, 2007
Features
October 31st, 2007
Recently on Stylus
Reviews
October 30th, 2007
October 29th, 2007
Features
October 30th, 2007
October 29th, 2007
Recent Music Reviews
Recent Movie Reviews