Deep Cuts CD Review: Howlin’ Wolf – Rockin The Blues:Live In Germany 1964 (Acrobat)

It’s been said there are two types of people: Type A personalities who are only out for themselves and have to control everything they do right down to the last jot and tiddle (biblical reference – gotta use the seminary training somewhere) and Type B personalities who are not so much leaders as team players more concerned with the welfare of others than themselves and who are able to go where the wind blows and do what’s necessary for the greater good. If anyone can ever be known as a Type A personality it is the late bluesman Howlin’ Wolf, who ran his band and his life with the ferociousness and cunning of the animal he used as the inspiration for his musical nom de plume. Standing at 6’3 and close to 300 pounds for most of his performing career, The Wolf cut an imposing figure, for sure. He was known to war with Chess labelmate Muddy Waters over who was the best bluesman and tussle with bandmembers who were late, and/or disobeying Wolf’s rules in one form or another and was just a general bastard to whoever he didn’t like. The stories about the man are legion, even today, but what the rest of the world knows is that Wolf was one of the best bluesman to ever growl a vocal.

Born Chester Burnett and a total alpha male from that point onward, Burnett became the Wolf upon entry into the Southside Chicago world otherwise known as the Home of The Electric Blues. Discovered by Ike Turner who leased his first few records to Sun, Wolf eventually came in contact with Leornard Chess, the owner of Chess Records, and the rest is history as Wolf became one of Chess Records biggest and most enduring artists. For over twenty years it was Muddy Waters or Howlin’ Wolf, much like teenagers would later debate over The Beatles or The Rolling Stones. And, like those two bands, when one cut an album, the other would try to come up with a record that much better than the other’s. Though the blues would go through years of varying popularity, these two were constants and constantly battling, right up until Wolf’s death in 1975. That Waters would have a resurgence in 1976 thanks to his album Hard Again, make no mistake, though one would think Waters won their epic battle, even Waters would say it wasn’t the same without Wolf around to spur him on.

The recordings on this CD are culled from Wolf’s portion of a traveling American Folk Blues roadshow, which was one of the first blues festivals to feature American blues artists in Europe. Just imagine – these blues-loving Europeans being able to enjoy their favorite artists live for the first time when previously their names and likenesses were only seen on record labels and album covers! Accompanying Wolf are some great blues all-stars such as Willie Dixon on bass, Sunnyland Slim on piano, Wolf’s longtime guitarist Hubert Sumlin, and Clifton James on the drums. This aggregation was not Wolf’s usual touring or recording band (save Sumlin and Dixon, who wrote songs for Wolf and often played with him on studio sessions) so the unfamiliarity led to some different nuances than usual on these songs, though they were standards of Wolf’s repetoire at the time. Though this set is somewhat subdued and not as crazed and sexually charged as his usual nightclub set, this shows Wolf in a genial mood in front of an appreciative audience and gives a great snapshot of what the man could do live, if not what made him one of the best. As such, one might not deem this an essential live recording, but so few great live sets of Wolf are available I wouldn’t hesitate to take a chance on this.

To sum up: few live recordings of Howlin’ Wolf exist today so it is a wonderful thing to have this long-forgotten album reissued. Wolf, as usual, was near the very top of his game and gives a decent performance of some of his most well-known songs here, as does his band. While Muddy Waters was a consummate pro and quite possibly the most influential bluesman ever, Wolf was a force of nature and few could live up to his fiery performance style when he was “on”. Though more subdued here, any live Wolf is worth having and this set is no different. If you are a blues fan, or maybe just interested in where some of your favorite bands stole their licks from (Led Zeppelin, I am looking at you!) you need to pick this up and check it out. You will not be sorry.