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Safe House
various artists, Relativity Records, 1998

By Chet Williamson
Originally published at Rambles, a Cultural Arts Magazine
February 11, 2000

If I were to tell you that one of the best single-disc blues anthologies ever is on an obscure label and was created as a companion piece to a crime novel, you'd probably raise your eyebrows. Start raising.

This CD, subtitled A Collection of the Blues, was developed by author Andrew Vachss (rhymes with "ax") as a companion to his novel Safe House (a story of Burke, one of the "Children of the Secret" and who lives just outside the law). Vachss is a lawyer and a well–known fighter for child rights. You may have read his novels or his many articles in Parade magazine, or seen him on one of his occasional television appearances. He is a modern warrior, fighting to preserve what should be the innocence of childhood, and working every waking hour to battle those who would prey upon the young. He is one of the few heroes we have today.

And he's also got one hell of a lot of taste when it comes to blues. The CD starts off with Mike Bloomfield and Elvin Bishop, two amazing Chicago blues/rock guitarists, playing with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. Next is Katie Webster's "Pussycat Moan," a sloooow, nasty, mean blues tune with Webster singing great and playing red hot piano.

The third track gets into the eerie atmosphere that haunts Vachss' books. It's blues giant Buddy Guy singing "One Room Country Shack," with Otis Spann playing downright spooky piano behind Guy's wailing voice and guitar. Irma Thomas takes over with a great live cut of "Time Is On My Side," offering a gritty vocal mix of Janis Joplin and Cher (at her best, need I add?). She's got a great backing band, featuring Hammond B3 organ work by Reave "Doc" Watkins.

Bluesman Son Seals does "Going Back Home," using a tremendous repeating riff that makes your hair stand on end. He's followed by another true giant, Howlin' Wolf, and his classic "I Asked For Water (She Gave Me Gasoline)." No one howls like the Wolf, and this is one of his very best. Little Charlie and the Nightcats bring some "Rain" down onto Vachss' mean streets, a slow, menacing blues. One of the classic early practitioners of the blues harp, Sonny Boy Williamson (the first one), is up next, with "Early in the Morning," accompanied by Robert Lee McCoy on guitar. It's a great example of pre–war blues. Otis and Lucille Spann take us back to Chicago with "Some Day," showing why Otis was one of the best blues pianists ever.

Next, there's a real treat for readers of Andrew Vachss: "Till the Real Thing Comes Along" by Judy Henske. In the novels, Burke frequently listens to tapes of Henske as he drives, and Vachss is himself a huge fan of the singer. I recall her from the '60s, and still have some tapes of the Hootenany shows in which she appeared (back in the days of reel–to–reel, boys and girls), but her recordings have been out of print for years. This song, from her old Elektra album, High Flying Bird, shows her at her best, using her sensuous vibrato to build the song to a powerful climax. This is one strong singer, and someone should reissue the whole damned album.

It wouldn't be a great blues compilation without the next two musicians—Muddy Waters ("She's Nineteen Years Old") and Leadbelly ("Midnight Special"). Both numbers sound great, and the fine remastering on the older Leadbelly song allows us to hear the wonderful vocal blend of the Golden Gate Jubilee Quartet. Charlie Musselwhite, one of the top modern Chicago harp players, does "Baby, Will You Please Help Me" with his gritty, growling voice and celestial harp work. Marcia Ball holds down the penultimate spot with "Another Man's Woman," as in "I'm another man's woman and you're another woman's man." It's sad and lowdown and flat out gorgeous.

The CD's sole original, "Ghost," closes the set, and it's a real change of pace. Bazza, the lead singer, has more of a raw country–style voice than a blues one, but it works fairly well for the tune, whose lyrics were written by Vachss himself. The song is a skeletal retelling of his novel Shella, which contains the iciest prose ever written, and the lyrics are far more literary than those that precede it. Although there's a lot of story to tell here, the Vachss themes come out in lines like "Truth still shining down" and "Another chance in life to get it right." It's a hardboiled and cruel song, but with a hint of hope at the end.

This is one hell of a blues compilation, and if you like the blues, you'll dig it even if you never heard of Andrew Vachss before. If you don't like or know much about the blues, I can't think of a better CD to start your education. If you still need a reason to get it, a portion of the profits go to Community Works, an abuse prevention, intervention and treatment program, and CIVITAS Child Trauma Programs. And it may introduce you to an author whose work you'll find powerful and important. As Lou Bank says in his introduction to the CD, "Vachss' novels are the written–word equivalent of the Blues—if the music moves you, the writing might too."

This review was originally publsihed at Rambles.


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