Judge Paul Corupe loves the performer, but hates the selection of his work.
"I am not a rock and roll man"—John Lee Hooker
Anyone who caught some of the amazing live footage of John Lee Hooker in Martin Scorsese's recent blues documentaries might be interested in checking out this release. Put together by the late bluesman's Estate, Come and See About Me features about 70 minutes of live performances interspersed with interviews with artists including Ry Cooder and Charlie Musselwhite. Sounds interesting enough to whet the appetite of any blues fan, but the question remains: is this disc bad, or bad like Jesse James?
Like most Mississippi bluesman, Hooker left the Delta after World War II to seek his fortune elsewhere. Most ended up in Chicago, but Hooker broke away from the pack and went on to Detroit. This gradual migration of the blues from a rural to an urban setting had an unexpected effect on the music. In Chicago, where big band music was still popular, pianos and rhythm sections were integrated into the popular blues style. Soon, the stark, primitive country blues that were usually laid down by one man and his guitar was replaced by blues bands, four or five artists collaborating on a richer, fuller sound.
John Lee Hooker didn't really fall prey to that though. Record companies weren't shy about backing Hooker with a band, but on these recordings he usually overpowered the whole group with his rolling boogie bass lines and guttural hollering. The raw power of tracks like "Boogie Chillen," "Sally Mae," and even "It Serves Me Right to Suffer," that wondrous ode to regret, still contain that directness and charisma that tend to be missing from recordings made by many blues artists of that time.
Hooker always leaned a little closer to rock than most of his peers, so it wasn't really surprising that "Hooker 'n' Heat," a popular 1970 collaboration with blues-rockers Canned Heat, turned out to be one of his breakthrough records. After languishing back to obscurity in the 1980s, Hooker had a huge comeback in 1989, which saw the release of his Grammy-winning album "The Healer." Featuring an array of "rock" music superstars like Carlos Santana, Bonnie Raitt, and Robert Cray, this album updated Hooker's blues standards for a younger generation while allowing current artists to latch on to Hooker's respected legacy. The album was a huge hit, to the point where Santana clearly copied Hooker's formula in his own comeback album a decade later.
Despite the interview clips, this posthumous DVD release (Hooker died in 2001) is less of a documentary about the bluesman than it is just a showcase for a series of live performances. Here's what's included:
• Baby Please Don't Go (1992, featuring Van Morrison)
Before I get into discussing this disc, I wanted to make it clear that I hate "The Healer." I think it's a terrible album, a record company concocted monstrosity that waters down the real, raw country blues that John Lee Hooker managed to retain for many years longer than artists like B.B. King. The track with Santana is particularly terrible; his Spanish-tinged guitar wanking completely obscures any traces of what Hooker calls "the boogie." "The Healer" may be an album with roots in the blues, but it sure as hell ain't the blues.
Now, as expected, the performances here by John Lee Hooker are top notch. Not only is he an accomplished musician who manages to kick a little dirt over his major label sheen, but the man can play an audience like he plays his guitar, and they love every minute of it. As a showcase for Hooker's talents, this disc is a great success, with several highlights.
But personally as a fan of John Lee Hooker's, I was not satisfied with the selections on this disc, which focuses far too much on the years after "The Healer" was released. Only three of the performances are from the 1960s, with almost half of them coming after Hooker's "comeback." You see the lack of balance when you realize that the music recorded during his resurgence in the 1990s represented far less than a tenth of Hooker's total output. I would have gladly sacrificed any mention of Carlos Santana to see more of the stripped-down blues Hooker delivered at the Newport Jazz Festivals and other early shows. I realize that this is just my preference though, so if you like "The Healer," or were first introduced to Hooker through this album, this is going to be a nice music DVD to add to your collection, and may even expand your knowledge of the artist.
Sound and picture quality varies greatly from performance to performance. The 1980 clip of "The Boogie" is badly distorted by television cameras, often making Hooker and his backing band look like they have two faces. The archival performances are better, although a bit scratchy. All the recently recorded material, both performances and interviews, look pretty good, though. This is about what I expected, so no problems here. Sound is available in a 5.1 mix, but I'm not sure why, since most of the clips were originally recorded in mono and stereo. Still, the sound has a warm, full tone, but makes limited use of the extra channels.
There's not much in the way of extras. Two interview clips with Hooker only last a few minutes, and a discography is just four minutes of scrolling text. An "alternate" 1992 performance of "Boogie Chillen" with Roy Rogers probably could've been included back in the main feature, despite the overlap. The best of the batch is a 15-minute interview with John's daughter Zakiya, who waxes personal about the legendary bluesman.
An interesting, but by no means "definitive" disc (as the cover claims), casual fans will be delighted with this DVD of John Lee Hooker performances. More dedicated blues enthusiasts will probably be satisfied with a rental, so they can skip over the less interesting collaborations.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Eagle Vision
• Interview with Zakiya Hooker
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