Graded on a Curve:
Ann Arbor Blues Festival 1969 Vols. 1 & 2

The chances are good that anyone reading this site knows about a certain three-day music festival held in August of 1969. Well, this review delves into the other major musical gathering from that month of that year; it occurred from Aug. 1-3 at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor’s Hill Auditorium, and it was dedicated to the blues. For half a century, the occasion has been a part of the genre’s lore rather than an interactive milestone, but Third Man’s release of Ann Arbor Blues Festival 1969 Vols. 1 & 2 changes this situation across two double LPs offering a multiplicity of approaches from names big and small and just in time for the 50th anniversary of the whole affair.

Organized by a handful of blues-nut attendees of the University of Michigan, the Ann Arbor Blues Festival is notable as the first musical event held on US soil devoted solely to blues music. Scoping out the names that comprise these eight sides of vinyl, it’s remarkable how they excelled without much of a specific template, though of course there were folk and jazz fests a la Newport that served as a sort of rough guide.

While the lineup is loaded with titans, it’s diversity that’s the vital organizational tactic, interspersing acoustic country blues, with obvious nods to the Delta, into a landscape of electrified urbanity. The guitar is unsurprisingly favored, but there is room made for pianists, harp blowers, horn sections, and even some accordion.

The co-rulers of amplified Chicago, Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters, are here, both in strong form, with B.B. King joining them on the fest’s marquee of post-WWII blues mega-names, but it all kicks off with the indefatigable and highly adaptable pianist Roosevelt Sykes, whose skill on the keys is matched (indeed surpassed) by his ability to work a crowd as he dives with relish into the risqué smack-talk of “Dirty Mother For You.” As Sykes mentions, he cut it in ’34 for Decca, and it establishes a lineup spanning considerably wider than the cravings of a typical rocker turned budding blues aficionado.

With that said, Sykes is followed by Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup, a name long ensconced in rock history as the originator of “That’s All Right.” Here, he plays another of his songs covered by Elvis, “So Glad You’re Mine,” which radiates at spots like a more amped-up and bothered Jimmy Reed. And if it’s amped-up and bothered you want, J.B. Hutto & His Hawks’ Elmore James-channeling “Too Much Alcohol” will surely satisfy.

Hutto bears down and wails, but Jimmy “Fast Fingers” Dawkins is as fleet as his nickname implies, hitting a spot betwixt the Chi-town West Side Sound and Freddie King (and maybe a little Albert King also in the mix). A deeper plunge into West Side atmosphere comes via Otis Rush, who was one of the originators of the substyle, though this sturdy version of his celebrated “So Many Roads, So Many Trains” is an outlier here, captured in April of 1970 in the same auditorium.

And with that, a word of warning. The rest of this music was captured on a portable Norelco tape recorder by promoter John Fishel’s teenage brother Jim and his high-school buddies. It’s the embodiment of bootleg quality complete with occasional clapping, talking, exclamations, and a few dropouts. But any detraction this inflicts on the proceedings gets counterbalanced by the sheer value of rare moments like Junior Wells’ Sonny Boy Williamson tribute “Help Me,” or Clifton Chenier dishing out “Tu M’as Promise L’amour (You Promised Me Love)” at the request of Lightnin’ Hopkins.

Now, heavy-duty lovers of B.B. King are possibly familiar with his mid-’60s single “I’ve Got a Mind to Give Up Living” (performed here with Sonny Freeman And The Unusuals), but those who aren’t might be surprised by the tune’s inspired borrowing from Chopin’s “Piano Sonata Opus 35 No. 2” (the Funeral March, fitting for the song’s topic).

Also striking is Luther Allison and the Blue Nebulae reaching nearly 15 minutes, with the latter portion a take of Buddy Guy’s “Stone Crazy,” and the Original Howlin’ Wolf and His Orchestra stretching out even longer with “Hard Luck.” What Wolf’s band lacks in sharpness (a somewhat shared characteristic across these sides, though it’s important to keep in mind that the nature of the fidelity does the performances no favors) is made up for with pure gusto (and a whole lotta sax blowing), with the bandleader an engaged presence throughout.

Amid all these guitars, Pinetop Perkins momentarily shifts gears back into piano mode with the dexterous “Pinetop’s Boogie Woogie.” Meanwhile, Mississippi Fred McDowell’s version of “John Henry” (requested by B.B. King) diverges from the band action for the solo route and nicely blurs the line between rural acoustics and urban electricity.

On Vol. 2, it’s Lightnin’ Hopkins who most effectively combines aspects of country and city, though his “Mojo Hand” does it with a full band including piano; it’s the sound once heard in Deep South or Texas juke joints, and it’s beautiful. Of course, Muddy Waters also exemplifies this mix (Delta to Windy City), reaching back in his catalog to open the second set with “Long Distance Call.” Muddy’s approach is distinct from Charlie Musselwhite’s suitably titled “Movin’ and Groovin’” (undeniably influenced by Little Walter) and Magic Sam’s “I Feel So Good (I Wanna Boogie)” from his monster debut LP West Side Soul.

All this deep Chicago action, which culminates with penultimate track “Off the Wall” by the James Cotton Blues Band (another extended number at almost 14 minutes), can perhaps give the impression that the organizers were college-aged tastemakers of rare acumen, but they reportedly had the guidance of Bob Koester, who’d released records by some of the participants (e.g. Hutto, Dawkins, Allison, and Magic Sam) on his Chicago-based Delmark label.

Although he played on Allison’s 1969 debut Love Me Mama (yes, issued by Delmark), Big Mojo Elem didn’t get his own LP, fittingly titled Mojo Boogie, into the racks until nearly a decade later via the Storyville label. He performs the title track here, and it’s a raw-edged mover that situates Elem as a crowd-pleaser in personality as well as musical gusto.

Elem’s amongst the more obscure names here, and the same is arguably true of the folk blues-styled guitarist and singer Shirley Griffith; he did cut two LPs for Bluesville and one for Blue Goose. His track “Jelly Jelly Blues” is solid, but in one man with a guitar and a voice terms, I prefer Big Joe Williams’ “Juanita,” though the sound of audience conversation during his track does gets somewhat frustrating (at numerous other points this aspect of the recordings kinda blends into the overall ambience).

Sam Lay is far from well-known by name, but he drummed extensively on records by Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf as well as Paul Butterfield. Unsurprisingly, his “Key To the Highway” exudes substantial Chicago warmth. Contrasting, at the point of this festival the guitarist-vocalist T-Bone Walker was one of the higher-profile figures in the blues, and he lives up to his stature with some tangled-note potency across his signature tune “Call It Stormy Monday (But Tuesday Is Just as Bad).”

He also plays with Big Mama Thornton during her set, with the wildness of his solos nixing backup functionality and instead complementing the storied blues-belter’s sheer forcefulness during “Ball and Chain.” Really, it’s these moments of individualist brilliance, sometimes intersecting, at other moments solo, and hitting a culminating apex with Son House’s “Death Letter Blues,” that help to elevate these two volumes into something greater than uncovered history.

Not to belittle the unearthed past, but the music here, to reference the name of the magazine co-founded by festival attendee Jim O’Neal, is living blues. That is, the sounds remain imbued with the spark of life. For decades, those who were at the Ann Arbor Blues Fest in ’69 could communicate its specialness, while those who weren’t could only allude to the event’s legendary stature. With the emergence of Ann Arbor Blues Festival 1969 Vols. 1 & 2, there is now ample documentation for remembrance, for pure enjoyment, and maybe most importantly, for sharing in its considerable worth.

Ann Arbor Blues Festival 1969 Vol. 1

Ann Arbor Blues Festival 1969 Vol. 2

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