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In the four years since his last recording, Chicago bluesman Son Seals has faced enough adversity to inspire a thousand blues songs. Three years ago Seals’ ex-wife shot him in the face, forcing him to undergo reconstructive jaw surgery. Last year, diabetes forced Seals to lose half of his left leg.
The indomitable Seals is back with a new recording and a new label. Lettin’ Go features some big-name guests, including guitarist Trey Anastasio of Phish (on one tune), Al Kooper on B-3 organ, Jimmy Vivino on guitars, and several of Vivino's fellow musicians from TV’s Late Night with Conan O’Brien. Seals' most unusual collaborator here is crime fiction writer and children’s lawyer Andrew Vachss, who penned lyrics to two of the album’s better songs, "Bad Blood" and "Doc’s Blues."
Seals seems to have mellowed a bit, no doubt owing to his recent health problems. The tunes on Lettin’ Go are more reflective and less edgy than on his eight Alligator releases. Fortunately, his vocals remain soulfully gruff, and his staccato guitar work is as idiosyncratic as ever. Lettin’ Go is leavened by a slick four-piece horn section that sometimes clashes with Seal's rough-hewn style. Still, this is a superior recording from a distinctive bluesman.
With its fast beat and wailing guitars, the remake of "Funky Bitch" (with Anastasio, Jeff Bihlman and Seals on guitars) evokes the Son Seals of old. "Let It Go" is a rousing blues number that features the horn section to good effect. Son even dabbles in country and gospel on his catchy original tune "Rockin' and Rollin' Tonight." "Osceola Rock" is a straightforward rock 'n roll tune that pays tribute to the bluesman's hometown in Arkansas. The lyrics mention the Dipsy Doodle, Seals' father’s old juke joint where Son first heard Albert King, Sonny Boy Williamson, and various other musicians who steered him toward a blues career.
Since Trey Anastasio and his band routinely draw 50,000 to their concerts, Lettin' Go should sell a few copies. Son Seals deserves the exposure, and he's certainly earned the right to sing the blues.