Review: John Lee Hooker - Hooker (Box Set)

An impressive retrospective of one a blues icon...
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Hooker Box SetJohn Lee Hooker's life is in many ways the quintessential bluesman's life.  He migrated north from Clarksdale, Mississippi with dreams of making a career playing the blues.  He outlived most of the record labels he recorded for and recorded under more aliases than Prince.

Five years after his death, a Herculean effort has been undertaken to make sense of his unruly and expansive discography in the form of a 4-CD box set, Hooker.  The idea that four discs could contain every vital side the man cut in his 50-year career is absurd.  What Hooker tries to do is bring together as many of his highlights and present the music with a narrative flow.

Disc One opens with Hooker's solo recordings.  His blues-based boogie meditations did more than create one of the building blocks of what would become rock and roll.  The twelve-bar blues is a standard rock convention that nearly all popular music utilizes to this day.  He played conventional blues but some of Hooker's best music makes time signature irrelevant.  It is not exactly 4/4, it does not waltz to 3/4 or march to 2/4.  John Lee Hooker played Hooker time.  His blues were built on his own rhythms and it is a rhythm no drummer or guitar player will ever quite duplicate.  The word "unique" is overused but it applies to a large chunk of Hooker's music, particularly this early work when he recorded alone.

The elements of his early compositions are guitar, voice, a rhythmic tapping of his guitar or stomping of his foot, and space.  During the course of a song there will be times when Hooker plays, stomps, and sings.  There will also be moments when the guitar drops out and all that is left is his voice and the stomp.  Equally important is the space in the music.  It is amazing how full a song can sound still have so much room to breathe.  No one makes music like this today. 

With Hooker, the power comes not only from what he plays, but when he plays.  "Catfish Blues" is a great example of this as are other songs from the first disc of Hooker.  You want to tap your foot along with him but you can't.  Not really.  No one understands or inhabits Hooker time other than the man himself.  Before you reach the end of that first disc, you begin to hear him expand that sound to incorporate other musicians.  Even then, Hooker's unique sense of timing and rhythm can still be heard and felt.

Discs two and three summarize the mid-period of Hooker's career, during which time he recorded more often with full bands than solo and began collaborating with some of musicians he influenced, including Canned Heat (Hooker 'n' Heat).  Some of Hooker's best and best-known songs were cut during this period including "Boom Boom" and "One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer."  These songs were a little less boogie oriented and tended toward the more traditional blues sound.  This era placed less emphasis on his guitar playing and placed more on his great, growling voice.  Hooker, like Muddy Waters' mid-to-late period, became more of a bandleader.  It is a transition he made successfully because of the sheer force of his personality and presence.  It did not matter who played with him, these are John Lee Hooker songs.

The fourth disc summarizes Hooker's final decade as a recording artist, a period which found the legend enjoying a late-career renaissance through a series of star-studded collaborations.  Before Carlos Santana started making those kind of records, he was making guest appearances on John Lee Hooker albums.  In addition to Santana, the fourth disc of Hooker features his duets with Robert Cray, Bonnie Raitt, Van Morrison, Ry Cooder, and Eric Clapton, just to name a few.  This fourth disc is more uneven than the previous three.  It is natural to wish there was more of the earlier work and less of this, but the albums from this period helped revitalize interest in Hooker.  The mutual admiration between him and those he inspired can be heard in the music they made, and some of these duets work quite well ("In the Mood" with Bonnie Raitt being one).

Few bluesmen have proved as versatile or as enduring as John Lee Hooker, and while this set might not include every scrap of the evidence to bear this out, it comes close.  Hooker opens with "Boogie Chillen" and 84 songs, 5 hours, 4 discs later, closes with it.  Nothing could be more fitting.