Was just thinking of this tribute disc the other day. I wrote this review when it dropped in 2001.
Sure, the rough-tough Delta blues guys got noticed quick. Those who
crossed paths with Son House and Bukka White were instantly entranced by
the guitar slashes and vocal growls that marked the artists’ styles. But
what about those gentle souls, the singers who charmed us by keeping it
simple? Skip James perfected the ethereal wail. And John Hurt, well John
Hurt made art out of combining whisper and coo. The gentler he got,
the more profound he became.
The bedrock simplicity at the heart of Hurt’s tunes is what makes Avalon Blues, a
15-song various artists hat-tip, such a successful venture. No one has to fight
idiosyncratic song designs, no one has to negotiate mine fields to get
to a song’s essence.Though he could be a riveting and complex picker, Hurt’s gift was
creating pieces that always seemed easily negotiable. Things like
“Stagolee” and “First Shot Missed Him” flow in an unfettered way, and
generally indicative of his work, their tempos invariably swoop down to lift you
Because they usually do business without a back-up band, folkies,
singer-songwriters, and acoustic bluesmen live and die on their ability
to control their rhythmic dynamics. Remember Taj Mahal’s “Frankie and
Albert” from the *Ooh, So Good and Blues* album? The guy’s right thumb was like
a bass drum from a New Orleans parade ensemble. On the tribute, Bruce
Cockburn has a grand old time with “Avalon, My Home Town.” His picking
prowess frequently presents itself in his own work, but this take has
enough syncopation to create mucho tension and enough thrust to get you
rocking in place. Same can be said for the one-man-band gospel spin on
“Here Am I, Oh Lord, Send Me” supplied by Alvin Youngblood Hart.
Soloists don’t need help to make Hurt’s stuff sizzle.
That doesn’t mean bass and drums are a nuisance. Steve & Justin Earle
ride the rhythm section quite nicely on “Candy Man,” reveling in how all
those woman got hooked on that nine inch stick. And a Santa Monica
studio takes on t he feel of a nowheresville gin mill when Peter Case
and Dave Alvin use a fuller band to bounce through “Monday Morning
Caprice was always a part of Hurt’s music. If you’re not aware of the
glee behind “Funky Butt” or “Spider Spider” you owe yourself a trip
through the master’s Vanguard tunes. Geoff Muldaur, a serious guy with a
serious sense of humor, respects Hurt’s whimsy. “Chicken,” sung with his
two daughters, is a spelling lesson and ragtime strut rolled into one.
Don’t be surprised if you hear giggling in the room when you spin it.
Sobriety marks a couple of the interpretations. Beck waxes eerie on his
update of “Stagolee.” Slight echo on the voice, a sense of dread wafting
through the cheesy ambiance of what sounds like a home recording –
Hurt’s performances occasionally offered more merriment than his lyrics
suggested, and here the pomo troubadour, who’s previously proven his
regard for the man on One Foot in the Grave, puts a novel spin on the
classic. Ditto for the vagaries of Victoria Williams’ assessment of
“Since I’ve Laid My Burdon Down.”
Often sweet, sometimes forlorn, Hurt’s music is remembered fondly
because it was rendered fondly. Any canon that can accommodate Lucinda
Williams’ woe and John Hiatt’s elation is universal enough in temperment
to resound for another centry.