Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Review: Pride and Joy: The Story of Alligator Records

Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2016
Images from the Internet

Pride and Joy: The Story of Alligator Records (Blu-Ray)
Directed by Robert Mugge
MVD Visual
87 minutes, 1992 / 2016

It is important to realize just how crucial Alligator Records is to the modern Northern electric Blues scene and industry. Founder Bruce Iglauer singlehandedly built the indie label into the largest Blues publisher in the world.

This is also not the only film about Alligator Records, which makes a good companion to this release (reviewed by me HERE). There are some great performances on that one, but part of my question is that there is quite a bit of repetition between the two films about the facts, so why not just make this just a concert film, as it offers music from the Alligator Records 20th Anniversary Tour, which was filmed at the Chestnut Cabaret in Philadelphia, on March 12, 1992 (the club closed in 2013).

I’ve already dealt with the social implications of gender and appropriation in the other review, so rather than discuss the interviews with Iglauer that are inserted between the songs at length, I’m just going to stick mostly to the music, if you don’t mind. Honestly, I wish they had done that, because I would have liked to put this Blu-Ray in and just groove instead of the wordy interruptions.

Note that the song list is at the bottom of the page.

All the music is electric – Chicago style fomented by the likes of B.B. King – and usually based on some form of the I-IV-V chord progression. First up is Lil Ed (Williams) and the Blues Imperials doing the title number, “Pride and Joy.” Lil Ed plays a mix of picking and slide. This is a near (early) rock’n’roll sound for some of it. The subject leans toward a love song, a topic not always found in Blues, though sex is often at the core. Here it’s just plain happy, with some amazing “bing-bing-bing” strumming and pounding of the strings reminiscent in a bit of a Son House adaption.

Katie Webster (d. 1999) was known as a boogie piano player, and here she does the slow burn of “Pussycat Moaning.” The grinding theme is being lonesome because her love has left, even though he’s no prize (“You spent my money / And chased every skirt in town”), and she has reached her limit. Her upper key registry playing on the piano is chilling in the context of the song topic. The style reminds me a bit of Cab Calloway’s gender reverse “Minnie the Moocher.” Katie’s blues scat is so deeply steeped in emotion.

Elvin Bishop, of course, has his own rock blues pedigree, having started with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, and swinging into his own Elvin Bishop Band. Here, he is joined with Ronnie Baker Brooks (son of Lonnie Brooks) to pound out “El-Bo.” This is definitely the hardest rocking of the songs. Brooks plays a softer solo, and perhaps more emotional; he doesn’t seem to need to rock out, but rather butter up the guitar playing the same song. Both are incredibly delved in a different edge of the same framework.

The Lonnie Brooks Band plays a song deep in horn dog mode with “Wife for Tonight.” Wearing a Bo Diddley kind of wide-brimmed hat with the feather in the front, Lonnie plays the slow burner with a halting style that fits well into the desperation of the song, also hanging out in the higher register part of the guitar neck. “I feel a need / For some down-home love tonight,” he howls.
Koko Taylor (d. 2009) and her Blues Machine plays with Lonnie Brooks, with Brooks and Taylor sharing the back and forth vocals of “It’s a Dirty Job” (but somebody’s gotta do it). They are broke and both offer the other to do some work that isn’t that great, such as with an escort service; Lonnie volunteers, saying that even though it’s a dirty job “I wanna do it!” It’s a medium speed, humorous piece that reminds me a bit (in theme, not style) of the type Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty (d. 1993) would do.

If there was a side two to this record, this would probably start it off. Lil Ed and the Blues Imperials record in the studio rather than on the stage, for “Ed’s Boogie.” This is a great rave-up instrumental that sounds straight out of 1955 rock and roll. The band all play together in studio, rather than in pieces, which give it more cohesion. Plus we get to see more than one take, which is a pleasure since it’s a blazing song. Plus they seem to be having so much fun that it transfers over to the listener.

Katie Webster says her style is a mixture of Texas, Louisiana, and gospel. Back on the stage of the Chestnut, there is a strong feel of gospel mixed with the Blues for “Lord I Wonder.” It gets the audience participating with hand-clapping with this self-referential song that has malleable lyrics that Webster adapts to the particpants playing at any particular show, as well as classics like Billy Holliday and Etta James.

Working in some sense of humor to the song “Beer Drinking Woman,” Elvin Bishop plays the first-person storyteller. At first he talk-songs, and they dives into his heavy rockin’ blues. Throughout he goes back and forth between the vox and guitar.

The Lonnie Brooks Blues Band, which also includes his son Ronnie, has Lonnie playing more classic electric blues with a bit of a Chuck Berry-ish riff occasionally on “I Want My Money Back,” even when he plucks the strings with his teeth for a bit. I think I like his and Lil Ed's material the best on this release, and I say that without disparaging any of the other artists. Watching the father and son sharing the song, and even the same guitar at some point, is a joy. Unfortunately, like the second Katie Webster number, there is a brief interview with Lonnie and Ronnie that is placed in the middle of the song, breaking the vibe. To me, that just says director ego.

Koko Taylor and Her Blues Machine’s slow grinder number, “I’d Rather Go Blind,” sounds stylistically like something Gladys Knight or Tina Turner might have covered. Or perhaps the Stylistics or O’Jays. Definitely sounds more Philadelphia Soul than Chicago Blues. It’s a gusty number with a vocal slide from growl howl to low murmurs: “I’d rather go blind / Then see you walk away from me.” Powerful.

The final is, rightfully, a phenomenal jam with all the main artists and back-up bands joining for a cover of Robert Johnson’s “Sweet Home Chicago.” I recent heard someone say they found the Blues boring because it all sounds alike. What I would like is to have that person watch this piece to see how all the musicians play the same song differently. One of the special moments of this song, I thought, is when Koko (she leads the whole thing) presents Elvin Bishop’s turn. He humbly starts playing in the back to honor the level of musicians that are on the stage, but Koko won’t hear of it and insists he comes to the front. That is camaraderie at its finest.

While I found a lot of the talking between songs made me anxious because I wanted to hear the music, there were still some fine moments in explaining the philosophy and history of the Alligator label. Just wish they had put it either at the beginning or the end, and let the music flow straight through. At least they played the complete songs, even the two that were interrupted; I still believe that’s a bad choice that too many documentaries make.

The first extra is an 11-minute Making Of, which is more of a director’s background to making the film than anything else. The big attraction for me is the audio of a number of songs from the show, the list of which is at the bottom.

Song list:
Lil Ed and the Blues Imperials: Pride and Joy
Katie Webster: Pussycat Moaning
Elvin Bishop, with Ronnie Baker Brooks: El-Bo
The Lonnie Brooks Band: Wife for Tonight
Koko Taylor and her Blues Machine with Lonnie Brooks: It’s a Dirty Job
Lil Ed and the Blues Imperials: Ed’s Boogie
Katie Webster: Lord I Wonder
Elvin Bishop: Beer Drinking Woman
The Lonnie Brooks Blues Band: I Want My Money Back
Koko Taylor and Her Blues Machine: I’d Rather Go Blind
Jam: Sweet Home Chicago

Audio Tracks:
Lil Ed and the Blues Imperials: Killing Floor
Lil Ed and the Blues Imperials: Can’t Let These Blues Go
Lil Ed and the Blues Imperials: Mean Old Frisco
Katie Webster: Two-Fisted Mama
Elvin Bishop: Stealin’ Watermelons
Elvin Bishop: My Dog
The Lonnie Brooks Blues Band (with Katie Webster): Those Lonely, Lonely Nights
The Lonnie Brooks Blues Band: Two Headed Man
Koko Taylor and Her Blues Machine: Something Strange is Going On
Koko Taylor and Her Blues Machine: Wang Dang Doodle

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