Wednesday, March 18, 2009
Howlin' Wolf - The Back Door Wolf (Chess, 1973)
There are a wide range of opinions about this album. Some hail it as a powerful final statement by the legendary Howlin' Wolf. Those with an opposing viewpoint consider it a feeble attempt to update his sound, much like the lamentable Howlin' Wolf Album and Message to the Young. Others, like myself, believe that The Back Door Wolf, while no masterpiece, has enough redeeming qualities to make it a worthwhile addition to the collection of any electric blues fan. Despite being past his prime, Wolf did not lack for effort, and even at less than full strength, was still better than 90% of the other blues musicians out there.
Recorded in 1973, this LP is definitely a product of its time. GRT, which had acquired Chess Records only four years previously, was trying to find a way to keep the younger record-buying public interested in its musicians without resorting to the psychedelic excesses of the previous decade's last years. As a result, the album's only major departure from Wolf's established sound was the addition of Detroit Junior's electric harpsichord on the title track, "Speak Now Woman," "You Turn Slick on Me," and "Watergate Blues." While there are a significant number who just can't accept the sound of this particular keyboard on a Howlin' Wolf record, I don't have a problem with it. Muddy Waters' "Can't Get No Grindin' (What's the Matter with the Meal)," recorded a year earlier, also featured harpsichord (although according to discographies, the keyboard player is Pinetop Perkins), and somehow its baroque sound gives it a bit of funky edge in a similar fashion to the aforementioned numbers by Wolf.
At this point in his career, the legendary bluesman was in poor health, even worse than he had been during the recording of The London Howlin' Wolf Sessions when fatigue limited the amount of time he could spend in the studio. Saxophonist Eddie Shaw was Wolf's effective band leader during this time as well as manager, arranger, and sometime songwriter. Although it is strange for a Howlin' Wolf album not to feature any Willie Dixon songs whatsoever, Shaw's compositions - "Coon on the Moon," "Trying to Forget You," "Leave Here Walking," "The Back Door Wolf," (co-written with Chess stalwart Ralph Bass) and "Watergate Blues" - do a pretty good job of filling the void. "Coon" and "Watergate" are two racially-conscious pieces that celebrate the ascendancy of black folks during the immediate post-Civil Rights era. The former acknowledges how far African-Americans had come since the days of Wolf's youth, and the latter deals with the black security guard who had busted Richard Nixon's henchmen during the infamous Watergate break-in. "Back Door" features the only appearance of Shaw's capable saxophone and is essentially an instrumental with Wolf moaning low along with the melody. Neither "Leave Here Walking" nor "Trying to Forget You" (which sounds a little too much like "Smokestack Lightnin'") are exceptionally notable. On both "Trying" and "Moving," the listener can clearly hear someone (Shaw?) feeding the lyrics to Wolf. This is especially strange on "Moving" since it is one of two songs (the other being the rollicking "Stop Using Me") on the album where Wolf receives songwriting credit. Moreover, the self-derivative nature of the song (Wolf refers to both "Back Door Man" and "Forty-Four") makes one wonder why he needed any coaching at all. Illness, perhaps. Despite these quibbles, "Moving" features some absolutely sublime playing by the great Hubert Sumlin which recalls his guitar work on "Shake for Me" and "Killing Floor." Sumlin, in fact, is in superb form throughout the proceedings and puts down some especially hot licks on "You Turn Slick On Me," "Can't Stay Here," and the alternate take of "Speak Now Woman."
Although Wolf didn't have many bullets left when he recorded this album, you have to admire the fact that he still went down shooting.
2. Coon on the Moon
3. Speak Now Woman
4. Trying to Forget You
5. Stop Using Me
6. Leave Here Walking
7. The Back Door Wolf
8. You Turn Slick On Me
9. Watergate Blues
10. Can't Stay Here
11. Speak Now Woman (Alternate Take)