Avalon Blues: A Tribute To The Music Of Mississippi John Hurt
Vanguard Records, 2001
REVIEW BY: Duke Egbert
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 08/07/2001
I am a recent convert to the musical legacy that is Mississippi John Hurt, and I haven't as of yet been able to find a lot of his music. But from the first moment I heard his voice and guitar on the Newport Folk Festival blues CDs I reviewed about a month ago, I've been intrigued, fascinated, and overjoyed with the master of Delta guitar and songwriting.
Hurt was more than a bluesman his style was older, more conversational, and more a reflection of pure singing and storytelling than anything else. Almost lost forever, Hurt's music was saved in the mid-sixties by the folk revival and has, since then, been a consistent presence and influence on American artists. I'm not the first person touched by Hurt's music, as is obvious by the list of artists on Avalon Blues.
Tribute artists, however, are always a tough thing to review and a tougher thing to judge. Sometimes, artists you love turn in some of their worst performances (Kate Bush's version of "Rocket Man" still causes psychic scarring ten years later). So I'm not judging these performances on how close they are to the original, but rather how well they work on their own.
By that standard, Avalon Blues works relatively well, with a few exceptions. I admit to never having warmed to Victoria Williams, and her version of "Since I've Laid My Burden Down" doesn't change my mind much; it makes her sound like Yoko Ono. Lucinda Williams on "Angels Laid Him Away" just doesn't have the chops to handle the intensity needed. Those are, admittedly, the big two complaints, and from there on out it gets a lot better.
Hurt was a brilliant guitarist; there is an apocryphal story of classical guitar great Andres Segovia hearing a Hurt solo recording and asking who the second guitarist is. Chris Smither on "Frankie And Albert", Bruce Cockburn on "Avalon, My Home Town", and Mark Selby on "Make Me A Pallet On Your Floor" all handle tough guitar work with aplomb. Alvin Youngblood Hart tears through the spiritual "Here I Am, Oh Lord, Send Me". Steve and Justin Earle do justice to the nine-innuendoes-a-second "Candy Man", Geoff Muldaur gets his kids into the act on "Chicken", and the brilliant Bill Morrissey scores as always on "Pay Day". Finally, two excellent tracks from unusual artists round out the good stuff; Beck's straight, note-perfect take on "Stagolee" and Taj Mahal's rollicking "My Creole Belle".
Avalon Blues is a good look at Mississippi John Hurt the songwriter, and it has some nice takes on classic songs. It's worth picking up as is the complete catalog of the man himself. You won't be disappointed in either case.