Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Sleepy John Estes, Live in Japan, with Hammie Nixon, 1974-76

Blues master Sleepy John Estes (1899-1977). . . . There has never been anyone quite like him for his inimitable vocal delivery, the prototypical strength of his lyrics and, yes, the fundamental rhythmic guitar style (and piano playing), all delivered with that patented totality that was his and only his. Of course he is one of many great bluesmen, but one of the most consistently original.

As with many long-time music devotees I have many personal associations with the greats, not necessarily face-to-face. Usually purely experiential. I believe it was 1967 and my friend and I went on a sponsored trip to the city, Greenwich Village, for a visit with the anti-war Methodist Church then very much active in the community. They gave us a talk about their work, their social activism, then took us on a personal tour through the Village as it was flourishing then. I remember we walked past the Purple Onion, then one of the hot clubs, but mostly I remember we stopped at a very hip record shop where I found both a Sleepy John Estes and a Blind Willie Johnson album there, original '30s recordings reissued on the now long-defunct RBF label.

I had been listening to Jimmy Reed, Bobby Blue Bland and John Lee Hooker by then and knew the blues were very cool. But Sleepy John had something very unique going on (not to mention Blind Willie J) and I listened repeatedly and carefully. He was an important part of my musical experience and still has a special place inside me.

So Sleepy in his later years had a comeback by signing with Delmark, creating an album or two to some acclaim. In Japan they absolutely adored his music as a result. Several tours to Japan happened in the wake of his recordings' success. Now after all these years, we get to hear high-quality recordings of the best of the Japan tours, on the new release Sleepy John Estes Live in Japan (Delmark DE 835). He is seconded on vocals, harmonica, jug, etc., by Hammie Nixon, who was an old friend and a very capable singer in his own right.

So we have Sleepy John on acoustic guitar and vocals, Hammie as second, and for a few cuts a backup band. They do some of the signature tunes such as "Divin' Duck Blues" plus what were by then old-time standards like "Corrina, Corrina".

Sleepy John by then was entering the twilight years of maturity, but all the things that made him great were still there, one way or another, even if they were more well-worn and golden than firey and raw like the original recordings. But that doesn't matter if you dig Sleepy John Estes. This is John towards the end of his road, a huge success, a star in Japan and subjected to rapid recognition all the world over after years of neglect. You feel the triumph with him, hear him give his all. You should find his early recordings if you don't know them, then get the Delmarks. This one gives you a lot of music and it's the real John, so get it too!

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