Luther Allison at the Top of His Game
When Luther Allison returned to American stages in 1994 after more than a decade playing in Europe and elsewhere outside the country, he was a lean blues machine, a charismatic, handsome figure in full blossom with an expressive, craggy voice, a sophisticated repertoire and a guitar style that made him easily the best performer on the U.S. festival circuit until his death in 1997.
Joining the raw power of his tutelage in Chicago with the rich experience of playing alongside jazz and popular musicians in Europe, Allison returned with an emotional intensity and command of the stage that reminded me of Bruce Springsteen. Difficult to describe unless you actually saw him perform during this time – you just let the music sweep over you.
Ruf Records has released a package that captures one night during that period. It includes a CD and DVD version of a set recorded July 4, 1997, at the Montreal Jazz Festival, and the DVD adds a short documentary and a couple of interviews. The DVD is especially intriguing and deeply poignant when you realize that Allison would be dead of cancer less than two months after this was filmed.
The set is heavy on songs from Allison’s last albums, musical vignettes and terse short stories that he calls “realistic songs” in one of the DVD interviews. “Move From the Hood,” “Cancel My Check,” “You Can, You Can” – all are all wonders of lyrical economy and ferocious musicality.
Has there ever been a more harrowing lyric about alcohol addiction than the sixteen lines that comprise “(Watching You) Cherry Red Wine?” The torment that settles over the singer as he watches his companion “asking the children to pour you a drink” is almost feral, his voice and Gibson Flying V shrieking together in deep pain and infinite frustration.
It certainly doesn’t hurt to have as talented a guitarist as James Solberg or his group backing you. Like the E-Street Band, these are guys ready to play upwards of three hours a night behind their charismatic leader. Allison gives him plenty of chance to stretch out, and Solberg’s tone and delivery perfectly complement Allison’s beefy chords, as the tension rises and then drops.
The DVD included with this package captures the Allison I remember, as charismatic and powerful onstage performer as I’ve ever seen.
Songs From the Road
This review appeared in Stereophile magazine August 2010.