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Boogie Blues Forever

John Lee Hooker
Looking Forward: Now in his 70s, John Lee Hooker continues to polish his reputation as one of the greats of the blues.

Photo by Kim Komenich

On his new album, John Lee Hooker reaffirms his place in the blues pantheon

By Nicky Baxter

THE TERM "living legend" gets tossed around too loosely, but John Lee Hooker is the real thing. Along with Bessie Smith, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf and a scant few others, Hooker has left an indelible stamp on the blues with a throaty growl that could--and still does--rattle the meanest of mistreaters.

Unlike other Mississippi Delta musicians who headed north to Chicago, Hooker settled in Detroit during WWII; he quickly established himself as blues monarch of the Motor City in the late 1940s. "Boogie Chillun" did the trick. Unabashedly country-blues in style, the tune scooted past the slick, zooted-suited R&B hits of the day, perching at No. 1 on the charts. His association with Bonnie Raitt brought a resurgence of interest in Hooker's career, capped off with 1989's The Healer.

Don't Look Back (Pointblank), the singer-guitarist's brand-new recording, shows that Hooker, who is now based in the Bay Area, hasn't lost his rough touch. Like The Healer and his other more recent releases, Don't Look Back boasts a small constellation of supporting stars.

Van Morrison checks in on several tracks, including the gospelish "The Healing Game." Morrison and Hooker echo each other like church pastor and choir. Perennial smoothie Charles Brown plays the piano on four tracks, the most notable of which are the languid, smoky "Ain't No Big Thing" and the title track.


Official Hooker Homepage.

A Sonoma Independent article about Hooker.


On the latter number, Hooker actually sounds wistful, while Brown's organ repeats a simple but effective melodic riff. Midway through, Morrison enters, ululating like the master himself. Like many of Hooker's signature tunes, this one goes on and on in a hypnotic boogie groove.

The shuffling "Blues Before Sunrise" shows off Hooker's distinctive single-chord guitar work. Making his instrument mumble and fret, Hooker creates a kind of ax-speak that is at once primal and timeless.

Hooker's guitar playing has been as influential as his midnight-hour moaning. His voice and the sound of his guitar are inseparable, one complementing the other. Don't Look Back is quintessential Hooker, even with the addition of friends and fans like Brown, Morrison and, on the kick-off track, Los Lobos. A gang of megastars couldn't outshine John Lee Hooker. Perhaps more than any living bluesman, his playing exemplifies the old blues maxim: Less is more.

John Lee Hooker performs Thursday (April 24) with Little Charlie and the Nightcats and the Chris Cain band at 8pm at the Edge, 260 California Ave., Palo Alto. Tickets are $20 adv. (415/324-EDGE)

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From the April 17-23, 1997 issue of Metro

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