June 17, 2024

John Lee HookerJohn Lee Hooker
Live at Newport

(Vanguard – 1960/63-2002)
by John Barrett

For its short lifespan, the ’60s folk revival accomplished a lot. Besides making stars of Dylan and Joan Baez, the boom revived the careers of many old-times, including a spate of bluesmen. (In fact, the genre became known as “folk blues” for a short time.) Taking the stage at 1960’s Newport Folk Festival, John Lee Hooker faced maybe the largest audience he’d ever played for … without diluting his sound in the slightest. He starts “Hobo Blues” with the fast-flying notes of an acoustic guitar; they ring loud and sound sad. It is a rich sound, like that of Lightnin’ Hopkins – add to this his mellow voice, cooing one moment and leering the next. Entering softly is the bassist Bill Lee, Spike’s father; his strum subtly follows Hooker’s, walking off like the hobo he describes.

“Maudie” has a tough, steady walk, a sound of desperation as the voice calls for love. A lot of echo pours from his mike – this one is lonesome, until the applause comes. “Tupelo” begins with a slow crawling figure, augmented by John’s stomping foot … the voice whispers, and the menace grows. He hums, the story rolls on, the low strings buzz, and it slowly fades away. “I can’t forget it … and you won’t either.” I agree – this man is unforgettable.

The other tracks come from the ’63 Folk Festival; Hooker was now signed to Vee-Jay Records and had switched to electric guitar. “Thank you so much for the sound of your hands ringing in my ears” … and then he starts battin’ a rhythm, similar to “What I’d Say”. Restless and wild, “Stop Now Baby” has a “mean woman” lyric and a worried voice – you won’t want him to stop. “You Make Me Feel So Bad” has the impact of a hammer: one note is struck, Hooker laments in short phrases, and the note returns.

“Bus Station Blues” has a sweet melody (perhaps his best), a basic “got to ramble” story, and that persistent, haunting rhythm. “Let’s Make It”, with a vamp like “Stop Now Baby”, is a plea for love at its most basic; Lee has a good walking part near the end. “Boom Boom”, first recorded in 1962, marked Hooker’s only entry on the pop chart; this version is loose, with a great churning middle and a wicked leer in his voice. Some unreleased tracks round out the disc, including the vengeful “You’re Gonna Need Another Favor” and another stab at “Boom Boom”. As he says near the end, “We are trying to bring you the message of the blues.” That he does, and how.

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