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John Lee Hooker: Hooker (CD Box Set)

Genre: Blues
Label: Shout Factory

The blues lost one of its visionaries when John Lee Hooker died in 2001. The Hooker sound was more minimalistic, some would claim hypnotic, than many other blues artists. His career spanned five decades, produced over 100 albums, and influenced countless performers. Shout Factory’s 2006 box set, simply entitled Hooker, is a fine collection of his songs; well chosen and handsomely presented.

A friend of mine once told me a classic John Lee Hooker story. He claimed that at the height of his popularity, Hooker liked to sneak out of the club before show time to play an impromptu set out on the street, hidden behind his hat and trademark sunglasses. While most likely an urban legend, a life as mythic as Hooker’s (running away from home at 15, wandering to Detroit in 1943, his numerous pseudonyms, his illiteracy) lends itself to such stories.

Hooker contains 85 songs. “Boogie Chillen’,” recorded in Detroit in 1948 and much later performed with Eric Clapton in 1998 begins and ends the box set. The four CDs and booklet, compete with photos and essays, gives the listener plenty of opportunities to become familiar with Hooker’s style of blues: deep, swampy, primal, low, slow, and dangerous.

From his stepfather, Hooker learned to play a signature boogie which he rarely diverged from, instead discovering numerous subtleties and shades within its parameters. He sang of heartbreaking loneliness, joyous celebration, and everything in between. Just as the richness of Shakespeare exists within the limits of an iambic pentameter heartbeat, so do the complex emotions of John Lee Hooker surface over the boogie beat of his guitar.

Although he recorded and performed with backing bands, Hooker’s music seems fullest when stripped down to just guitar and voice. Hooker allows you to hear his voice mature over fifty years all in one sitting. From the desperate wails on the early cuts, to the earthy rumble of his later years, Hooker’s singing was his most important instrument. His guitar served as the canvas over which his voice would paint, and although simple, few guitar players have mastered his rhythm. John Lee was also great at coaxing different textures from his guitar. He could make it ring like a bell, drone like an electric organ, or crackle like a fire.

The first disc in the boxed set contains the earliest material, which Hooker often recorded solo. Disc two spans the mid-fifties to mid-sixties and displays many of Hooker’s acoustic offerings. The third CD begins at the mid-sixties and features some of Hooker’s excellent live recordings. The box set concludes with selected collaborations with artists such as Robert Cray, Bonnie Raitt, Santana, Ry Cooder, Jimmie Vaughn, and Eric Clapton. With the sheer amount of material on the four discs, plenty of oddities pop up, including John Lee backed by a choir and some jazz-fusion spaciness from the 70s. Some are hits, some are misses, but the occasional random cut is part of what makes box sets fun.

The past and the future; from Mississippi Delta blues taking shape nearly 100 years ago, to Cream, Creedence, and the White Stripes, can be heard in this music. Although the first two discs of Hooker are most essential, this collection makes for what great music is all about.

Added: December 16th 2006
Reviewer: Mike Pursley
Related Link: Visit John Lee Hooker Online
Hits: 2961
Language: english


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