John Lee Hooker
Face to Face
The Music Box's #5 album for 2003
First Appeared at The Music Box, January 2004, Volume 11, #1
Written by John Metzger
In June 2001, at the time of his death at the ripe old age of 83, John Lee Hooker had been recording material for a new album. Much like his 1989 comeback outing The Healer ó as well as everything he released in the intervening years ó the collection, which appropriately is titled Face to Face, was designed to pair Hooker with a plethora of special guests. Still, it was far from complete, and after his passing it took over two years to put the finishing touches upon the project.
Itís certainly true that most posthumously completed albums of this sort wind up sounding forced, and the "collaborations" frequently feel disconnected and out of place. In other words, there are plenty of places where Face to Face seriously could have gone astray, but credit must be given to his daughter Zakiya Hooker and producer Ollan Christopher Bell, who took painstaking efforts to keep the late bluesmanís voice and vision intact, turning the song cycle into what undoubtedly is the must-have blues album of the year.
In fact, Face to Face actually works better than any of Hookerís recent celebrity-studded outings. Though the all-star cast of Jack Casady, Johnnie Johnson, George Thorogood, Tony Saunders, Warren Haynes, Dickey Betts, Elvin Bishop, Johnny Winter, and Van Morrison combines its efforts to flavor Hookerís songs, its collective contributions are wholly unobtrusive. It could be anyone adding the exquisite guitar, bass, and keyboard accompaniments to the albumís 15 tracks; that they happen to be such well-known performers merely makes the album marketable on a broader scale. Rather than undermine the proceedings, the guests largely lurk in the shadows, and as a result, the arrangements perfectly reflect the spirit of Hookerís decades-long career, allowing the focus to remain exactly where it should ó on one of the biggest influences in blues and rock history.
Ever since he made a name for himself in Detroit in the 1940s by redefining the blues, Hookerís droning, single-chord vamps have never sounded anywhere near as drab as one might expect. Instead, they are extraordinarily versatile and sit quite comfortably in whatever context they happen to be placed. Whether performed solo or surrounded by a full band, whether relayed with a driving rock beat or as a funereal back porch moan, what consistently brings his songs to life is his passionately compelling delivery. Quite frankly, no one sings the blues like John Lee Hooker, and his unique, soul-stirring expressions burn brighter than ever on Face to Face as he revisits some old chestnuts and crafts a few new ones. Though each song explores the blues from a variety of vastly different perspectives, all are held together by his singularly signature style as well as his peerlessly emotive and captivating growl. Through his gruff vocals, he manages to convey the naked emotion of a man rubbed raw by the dark roads of life, but he also fills them with the rough ínĎ tough bravado that is a necessity for surviving the desolate byways of the Deep South where he grew up. Whether succumbing to the groove of Funky Mabel, wallowing in the self-pity of It Serves Me Right to Suffer, getting positively soulful on Loving People, or lamenting love on Six Page Letter, John Lee Hooker proves time and again why he was one-of-a-kind. Indeed, it would be a simple matter to dismiss Face to Face as yet another effort that surrounds a legend with an array of special guests, or worse, one that tries to capitalize upon his death. However, itís neither of those things. Itís simply an awe-inspiring final bow that finds Hooker gracefully joining that great gig in the sky and loving every minute of it.
Of Further Interest...
Face to Face is available from Barnes & Noble.
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2003 The Music Box