First Appeared in The Music Box, July 2007, Volume 14, #7
Written by John Metzger
Thu July 26, 2007, 06:40 AM CDT
In assembling Vanguard Visionaries — a ambitious, 34-title series of albums, each of which is devoted to a highly influential artist from the past who too often has been overlooked and forgotten — the Vanguard label set a noble and lofty goal for itself. Although the underlying concept is sound, its execution is considerably flawed. First and foremost, too many constraints were placed upon the project. Limited to 10 tracks that were plucked exclusively from the company’s own archives, the various collections are unable to come anywhere close to doing justice to their subjects’ legacies. Adding insult to injury, each package contains virtually no information whatsoever about its contents, which means that listeners have been left completely on their own to determine the importance of the material that lies therein.
Fortunately, as a standalone listening experience, the installment of the Vanguard Visionaries series that is devoted to Junior Wells is a solid and enjoyable endeavor. Vanguard, of course, was at the forefront of the folk and blues revival of the 1960s, and during that time, Wells settled into the studio with fellow Chicagoan Buddy Guy to craft a pair of albums for the company (It’s My Life, Baby! and Coming at You). Coming in the wake of his landmark outing Hoodoo Man Blues, which featured some of the finest music that ever sprang forth from the Chicago blues scene, Wells’ efforts for the label commonly were viewed as disappointing endeavors. In shifting from Delmark to Vanguard, his approach became strikingly more conservative, and neither the blend of concert and studio fare on It’s My Life, Baby! nor the horn-slathered arrangements of Coming at You fared nearly as well as they should have.
Nevertheless, Wells did record some stellar work for Vanguard, and most of the material featured on Vanguard Visionaries is marked by the kind of raw, emotional honesty that is impossible to manufacture. On Help Me, for example, Wells’ churning harp solo bleeds into his mournful vocals to create a positively moving eulogy to Sonny Boy Williamson, who had died just prior to the recording session. Led by Wells’ slow-burning and ominously intense delivery, Vietcong Blues plunges straight into the heart of darkness. During Messin’ with the Kid, Wells effortlessly tosses off a flurry of notes, which dart through the taut, funky rhythms provided by his backing band. Spurred by Guy’s playfully spry guitar licks, Wells’ soulful singing transforms the raucous celebration of Shake It Baby into something truly electrifying. Although Vanguard Visionaries hardly could be considered an in-depth examination of Wells’ career, it does serve as an effective appetizer that ought to encourage newcomers to dig deeper into his canon.
Of Further Interest...
Vanguard Visionaries is available from Barnes & Noble.
To order, Click Here!
1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2007 The Music Box