As thankful as we are for the scores of early blues recordings, it’s a hard style of music to coop up in a studio. The best artists have always been the most convincing storytellers and are better imagined on a street corner than plugged into thousands of dollars of audio equipment. Blues is about authenticity, and that happens on stage. When you listen to these six albums, you’ll know why.
At Newport 1960 by Muddy Waters When Muddy Waters took the stage with his band in Newport, RI, he was already quite well-known. Hailing from the Mississippi Delta, Waters headed north to Chicago, traded his acoustic guitar for an amplified one, and played his way into his role as the “Father of Chicago Blues.” This album is one of the first live blues albums, and has his entire range on full display. Some of its most lovely moments are the casual ways he chats with the audience between songs.
Live On Maxwell Street 1964 by Robert Nighthawk Not as popular as the other artists on this list, Nighthawk’s album belongs here for a few reasons. It was actually recorded on Maxwell St. in Chicago, the birthplace of Chicago Blues. Also, Nighthawk was an older man at the time (he’d be dead in the next three years) though he’d been playing blues his entire life. He is an excellent example of the re-discovery and commercialization of blues that happened in the 1960s, and this album puts you right in the middle of it.
Live at Winterland by Jimi Hendrix Recorded over three days in 1968 at the now defunct Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco, everything you ever need to know about Hendrix is on this posthumous release. He played blues the way nobody ever had, but he maintained fidelity to one of its core tenets: improvisation. After one of the world’s best renditions of “Red House,” he says, “Because you’re not seeing anything that’s been rehearsed…everything we’re doing and every way you’re feeling now is together and it’s natural…” It’s also 1960s America in a nutshell.
Live In Cook County Jail by B.B. King No blues list can be complete without it’s most important actor, and a dozen of his albums could be on this list. It’s this one, though, recorded in 1971, that shows the raw appeal of blues. From the moment King and his band are introduced, you can hear the unrest inside the jail. It’s impossible to select one track to highlight, but by the time he gets to “The Thrill Is Gone,” you are completely swept up in blues’ most prolific live performer in his prime playing to an unruly crowd.
Live at Carnegie Hall by Stevie Ray Vaughan This 1984 recording wasn’t released until after his untimely and tragic death, but it is Stevie at his finest. From the insanely fast-moving “Scuttle Buttin’” to the calmer and more poignant “Lenny,” the set list is wide-ranging and captivating. He took Texas blues to a new level, toeing the line between blues and rock, though he doesn’t seem to care what label he’s given. When he finishes one of his best renditions of “Dirty Pool” he asks, “Hey! That sound like blues to ya?” Yes, yes it does.
Live by Gary Clark, Jr. Maybe an unconventional selection, the young Gary Clark, Jr. has grabbed the blues baton and is running with it. Released only a few months ago, he combines his original material with some fantastic covers of blues classics (“Catfish Blues” as an example), and shows the range of his voice and guitar. Some of the best moments are more soulful ones, and the last four tracks should be heard in order. “Please Come Home” is like Bill Withers singing to some Hendrix licks, and “Bright Lights” sounds like something The Black Keys could have made.