John Lee Hooker: Live at Sugar Hill, Volume 2 (2002)
What gives a man justification to sing the blues? There have never been a staid set of credentials for such a pursuit, but if any one man had the proper pedigree custom plugged into his persona, it was John Lee Hooker. His voice could sway from gravel-grained bark to plaintive croon amidst lyrics of the most hard-bitten sort; and his fretwork often took flight on the simplest of one-chord wingspans that were among the most non-idiomatic in field. He was at his best alone and in front of audience, where the quixotic logistics of Hooker-time couldn’t foul up an accompanying band and he could sculpt and play freely with the musical parameters of each piece. Strict blues licks always fell by the wayside in favor of his own cleverly idiosyncratic improvisations.
The Sugar Hill Sessions of '62 were an instance when all these elements came beautifully into play. Culled from the same San Francisco club engagement that yielded its predecessor (currently available as the first half of Boogie Chillen, also available from Fantasy) this freshly minted disc of material states yet another case for the Hook’s supreme blues stature. His strings and throat are right up front in the mix, riding a current of slight tape hiss and occasionally close audience chatter, neither of which can compete in the least the primacy of his delivery. Feedback pops and between songs tune up interludes are all part of the package and contribute immeasurably to the pervasive ‘front-row’ feeling of the recording. Classics tunes like “Catfish Blues,” and “Crawlin’ King Snake,” which had been polished like sand-scrubbed pebbles on a beach through decades of use are routinely recast and rejuvenated under Hooker’s grizzled grip. Take the former cut where the familiar menace of the guiding three-note riff ebbs and expands in weird waves against Hooker’s emphatic recitation of some of the blues most archetypal lyrics. The hen-pecked boogie of the Tommy McClennan chestnut “Bottle Up and Go,” features Hooker at his most stark and simple, a skeletal chordal backdrop spooling out a sparse architecture for his gruff vocal interjections to scuttle across. “Let Get It” does it one better, by shaving off even more and leaving only the most primitive of rollicking beats behind.
The harsh signature amplification of Hooker’s guitar regularly acts as an eccentric third voice and he wields it like a master ventriloquist. Just reference the spidery tonal echo that drenches the shredded-heart sentiments of “What’s the Matter Baby” for one bittersweet taste. The post-Hooker world of today offers plenty in the catalog to choose from, but there’s a special place for this disc. It shows the bluesman relaxed and up close, working his hypnotic spells under just the right circumstances and as only he could do.
Track Listing: You Torture My Soul/ Bottle Up and Go/ Come Back Baby (Let
Personnel: John Lee Hooker- vocals & guitar. Recorded: November 8 & 9, 1962, San Francisco.