CD Review of West Side Strut by Eddy “The Chief” Clearwater
Recommended if you like
Chuck Berry, Lonnie Brooks,
Li’L Ed & The Blues Imperials,
Albert King, Luther Guitar, Jr. Johnson
Label
Alligator
Eddy “The Chief” Clearwater:
West Side Strut

Reviewed by Mojo Flucke, PhD

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eventy-three years old and still throwing down some powerfully aggressive Chicago blues – making men half his age look like pussies – Eddy Clearwater's one of the few dudes left with direct connections to the Windy City's 1950s heyday. In his late teens, he started hanging out and playing with legends like Magic Sam, Earl Hooker, and Sunnyland Slim. At 22 years old, seeing Chuck Berry perform crystallized in Clearwater's mind the idea of rockin' blues: Hard riffs with an R&B edge, which – along with Berry's duck walk – has served him stylistically throughout his career. He's part Cherokee, a cultural bloodline that has colored his dress and song lyrics over the years, too.

Funny thing about the Alligator Records sound: It's punchier, and more “live,” than that of Rounder Records, the label for which Clearwater made his last three domestic records. They were pretty good in their own right, but West Side Strut – produced by Ronnie Baker Brooks, son of Eddy's Chi-town contemporary, Lonnie Brooks – sounds edgier, urban and transparent. Clearwater pulls no punches, opening with the burner "A Good Leavin' Alone," which is basically an in-your-face explanation of what his woman's got coming. The guest lineup for the record reads like an evening at the Chicago Blues Festival: Billy Branch on harmonica and Ronnie Baker Brooks on guitar throughout the record, Lonnie Brooks on a couple of cuts including the fantastic duet "Too Old to Get Married," and the titanic trio of Clearwater, soul man Otis Clay, and Muscle Shoals soul player Jimmy Johnson on the slow blues "Do Unto Others." Infused with B-3 organ and a liberal dose of harmonies, West Side Strut plays not like the guitar-man solo effort it appears to be on the cover, but rather a collaborative jam by Eddy and friends, with the treble turned up to 11 so you can hear every nuance of the bass, organ, and rhythm guitar. Under this kind of sonic microscope – as opposed to the sonic soft-focus of trendy "retro" productions – Clearwater's voice stands up, strong and soulful. He's aged with grace, and doesn't sound a bit ragged or jaded.

Some of the cuts are blues covers, like Muddy Waters' "Walking Through the Park" or Lowell Fulson's "Trouble, Trouble." The best parts of the record – indeed, the best part of any blues record, since it's a dying genre and a lot of players Clearwater's age are either in retirement or the grave – are the originals. The man who gave us the ballsy "I'm in Very Good Condition (Considering the Shape I'm In)" during the 1990s – describing the aftermath of a massive heart attack – offers up a stack of new blues compositions, including the aforementioned "Leavin' Alone," as well as the struttin' "Blue Over You," a strolling R&B groove sung in three-part harmony. That cut details how lonely his life's become since he's given his ex-lady the good leavin' alone she deserved.

The best Clearwater cut on the record is "They Call Me the Chief," one of a style Clearwater's patented over the years: For lack of a better description, let's call it the Native American hard urban funk. Like, you know how rappers enjoy rhapsodizing about how good they are at rapping? Blues guys started the whole thing a long time before that. In this cut, Eddy explains in a Muddy Waters snarl how he earned his Chief name, decodes how rock 'n' roll enters his blues musical equation, and kicks a little of his life philosophy ("Just because I have a smile on my face / Doesn't mean they can walk over me...You can't give in to bitterness / Fly like an eagle to happiness"). Not far behind it is "Rock-a-Blues Baby," a strange but beautiful rockabilly blues driven by an ethereal guitar line that is crazy in a Clearwater kind of way that longtime fans will recognize. Always the eclectic, Clearwater skips putting any country tunes on West Side Story, but he does close the record with a powerful gospel antiwar tune, "A Time for Peace." Thank goodness someone is going decisively on the record during this election season.

"Too Old to Get Married" (but, they add, too young to be buried) finds both Lonnie Brooks – 75 years old himself – and Clearwater trying to out-blister each other in a guitar showdown that flat-out rocks and whose chorus promises  they're "gonna get their groove on and party all night long." You get the picture that, the day they cut that one and traded screaming four-bar solos at the end, it probably took a good couple hours for the smoke to clear from the studio before they could get back to work.

In sum, Brooks and Clearwater are old as dirt. But they're on top of their game, incredibly, and if you're into Chicago-style electric blues, this record will give your 2008 a shot in the arm.

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