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Album reviews: Vince Gill/Paul Franklin and Howlin' Wolf

August 8, 2013

YellowBrix

Aug. 08--New album: Bakersfield

Artist: Vince Gill and Paul Franklin

Label: MCA Nashville

Rating: 4 stars out of 5

Although it seems blasphemous to say, some of the greatest country music ever recorded had its origins in California.

When Nashville recording honchos started plopping string arrangements on country music near the end of the 1950s, Bakersfield, Calif.-based producer Kenneth Nelson decided to go another way. With California native Merle Haggard and Texas born Buck Owens, Nelson helped start the first wave of what would later be referred to as "outlaw" country music. The sound these artists created during that time is now referred to as the Bakersfield Sound.

The performances turned in on those original recordings by Owens and Haggard were more stripped down and direct than those coming out of Nashville. The performances still featured fiddles and pedal steel guitars, but in a radical move the drums were pushed up in the mix and the twang of the Telecaster electric guitar made up the majority of the musical personality.

The last artist to make a huge commercial splash with this style was Dwight Yokam, and Brad Paisley has managed to pepper his work with it as well.

The new "Bakersfield" album by Gill and Franklin is more than a couple of buddies cutting a few of their favorite tunes. Gill's talents as a singer are well known, and his ability to recreate the feel of Buck Owens' guitarist Don Rich is uncanny.

Multi-instrumentalist Franklin turns in pedal steel performances so eerily similar to the originals by Thomas Brumley it almost sounds as if the original recordings were sampled -- but they weren't.

The production and overall execution of "Bakersfield" is an incredibly sincere tip of the hat to the original sessions. Spirited performances of "Branded Man," "The Bottle Let Me Down" and "Nobody's Fault but Yours" stand out, but the entire album is a gem. The vocal harmonies shine throughout, displaying Gill and Franklin's bluegrass roots.

Rock and jazz fans have obsessed over their favorite musicians for decades, but that's not always been the case in the country music world. Gill and Franklin's instrumental prowess on "Bakersfield" should impress jazz and rock snobs alike. Gill's mastery of the Telecaster on "Foolin' Around" is enough to make any guitar store rat tip his mullet in admiration.

Hopefully there will be further volumes of this project, and a few people will take the time to sniff out the originals.

Classic album: The Chess Box

Artist: Howlin' Wolf

Label: Chess

Rating: 5 stars out of 5

Not many artists warrant three-disc box set retrospectives, but blues legend/rock and roll founding father Howlin' Wolf certainly does.

"The Chess Box" contains all of Wolf's hits for the venerable Chess label, along with unreleased tracks and solo acoustic performances. Many of these performances feature guitarist Hubert Sumlin, who himself influenced generations of rock guitarists such as Peter Green and Jimmy Page.

The sinister opening of "Moanin' at Midnight" is spookier than an acre of Marilyn Manson albums. Wolf's primal moan pitched up against a guitar riff that sounds like it crawled out of a burning swamp still raises hairs.

A cover of Willie Dixon's "Evil" is just that, and blues landmarks "Smokestack Lightning," "Who's Been Talking?" and "Sitting on Top of the World" are all here.

Howlin' Wolf's booming, coffee-cut-with-battery-acid vocals inspired Roger Daltrey's howling rock vocal style, and his harmonica and guitar playing helped lay the groundwork for the blues-rock boom that flooded the late 1960s/early 1970s.

Wolf doesn't get as much mainstream press as B.B. King, Muddy Waters or even John Lee Hooker, but as far as electric bluesmen go he's just as influential.

This collection also features segments of an audio interview with Wolf that are nearly as fascinating as the musical performances. As it turns out, this scary dude who looked like he could bite a guitar in half was a pretty nice guy who never recovered from his mother's disappointment in his choice of profession. See Wolf's "Mama Died and Left Me" for further details.

"The Chess Box" may be too much of a good thing for the average music consumer, but if you really want to get what Wolf was all about, this set is the only way to go.

Jon Dawson's album reviews appear every Thursday in The Free Press. Contact Jon at 252-559-1092 or jon.dawson@kinston.com. Purchase 'Making Gravy in Public' at jondawson.com.

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