Somewhere along the road running from its gnarled roots in the Delta to its current modern incarnations the Blues lost a lot of it’s bite. And in an age where wet-behind-the-ears pubescents like Shannon Curfman and Johnny Lang monopolize the Blues charts this set is a Bantam rooster’s wake up call crowing out a universal message from a certain Windy City street that seems to have been forgotten by many in the music. Taped in 1964 in conjunction with documentarian Mike Shea’s now legendary Maxwell Street film project the music here is the real deal, devoid of tepid polish and sanitized pretense. Portable tube amps and microphones, a few milk crates and makeshift chairs, and an instant venue is erected street side.
Along with the cadre of better known Blues luminaries there are also a handful of players whose sounds survive almost solely on the magnetic tape reeled out by Shea’s portable kit: Blind Arvella Gray, who lost several fingers and his sight in a robbery gone awry dooming himself to the itinerant life of a street performer, and Fannie Brewer, wife to James, who proves during her brief turn on the set closing “I Shall Overcome” that she was blessed with a formidable set of pipes. Gray’s seven-minute rendition of “John Henry” weaves vigorous strums, precisely placed slide accents and a gilded succession of verses into a protracted braid of golden invention. Even the sounds of an appreciative audience member dropping coins into his cup are captured on tape and without losing rhythmic stride Gray pauses to give vocal thanks.
Tracks like Bell’s “Juke Medley” and Nighthawk’s “That’s All Right” expire far too soon, but still build up a ragged rocking steam. On the latter a megaphoned street preacher gets in his two cents before the tape fades. On another track the enigmatic Little Arthur takes a jazz nod popping off quick covers of Gene Ammons “Red Top” and Bird’s “Ornithology.” His sharp brittle chords slice across a chugging electric bass rhythm before he takes a tangential tack and vocally expounds on the virtues inherent in the coffee bean.
The impromptu jams are arguably the most enjoyable peaks in a program littered with Everests. Along with Blues, spirituals and religious songs are also solidly represented. Carrie Robinson’s Holy Ghost power threatens to overload the amps on “Power To Live Right” while James Brewer’s “When the Saints Go Marching In” drapes a sanctified shawl of tinny vocals, guitar, tambourine and handclaps that soothes and disarms with its unadorned rectitude. On the secular side Wrencher’s reading of the B.B. King staple “Lucille” is infused with so much urban grit and grime that it smears the ears with a thick aural wax of the deepest cerulean blue. Beneath all the beautiful dirt and debris direct trajectories to church pulpit and cotton field are clearly traceable.
The centerpieces of this collection however, are the Nighthawk performances. Nighthawk’s reputation as the smoothest slide player in the business is blown to bits by his defining work on this set. Infused with voltaic juice his strings bleed molten rivulets of angst and authority while his gruff exclamations bark out sentiments both carnal and violent. Drop in on his serrated solo that rips a gaping hole clean through “Cheating and Lying Blues” for a taste of the genuine pugnacity on hand. Likewise his prickly rundown of protégé Elmore James’ “Dust My Broom” builds from his high-nasalized cry biting off meaty chunks of lyric as his slide slings off a jagged retooling of the familiar theme. The completely over-amplified opening on the epic “I Need Love So Bad” serves up another moment where the fuses are on the verge of being blown. “Take It Easy, Baby,” tips a hat to the Texas-born stylings of Lightnin’ Hopkins with a healthy dose of Hound Dog Taylor thrown into the blistering improvisatory stew. “Back Off Jam” from disc two launches on the three-pronged guitar engine of Nighthawk, Granderson and Bloomfield, which creates a virtual cyclone of riffs.
A portion of the Nighthawk material was previously available on a now hopelessly obsolete (and as it turns out unauthorized) Rounder disc ( Live At Maxwell Street ) and for some inexplicable it has also recently cropped up on a release from Bullseye, but it’s the incarnation here that is definitive. And as if all this weren’t enough there’s also a third disc containing the complete 45-minute interview with Nighthawk conducted by Mike Bloomfield in 1964 that is freckled with more revealing playing.
In sum this set does a service similar to that done by Evidence’s Living Country Blues collection released in 1999. Recorded under similar ‘field recording’ circumstances that latter set illuminated the rural strains of the idiom on the cusp of extinction. In like fashion, And This Is Maxwell Street casts an unblinking eye on the rich and equally endangered history of the music’s urban forms and reminds us of how vibrant and visceral it can be when conjured with the right hands.