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Published: 2002/06/28
by Michael Lello

Live at Newport (reissue) – John Lee Hooker

Vanguard Records 79703-2

For a guy known as one of the premier bluesmen ever, John Lee Hooker
sure seems like a nice guy and doesn't seem to be worried down with the
blues (apologies to Warren Haynes and Gov't Mule) when he talks to his
audience.

But when he launches into his music, the smile is gone and you can almost
hear the man's heart break. So how can Hooker turn it on and off so easily?
Does his cheerful demeanor between songs make him a fraud, or at least less
authentic in his craft?

Hell no. He refers to himself as an entertainer during one talk and says "we
have come a long way" at the end of the album. A long way indeed, from juke
joints and sweaty dives to the privileged crowds he played to at the Newport
Folk Festivals. But so what? Does it make the music any less bluesy?

Besides Hooker's inimitable voice and rootsy guitar, it's his folksy
persona, complete with quirky Southern dialect, that make him such an
appealing performer here. "I'm happy to be heeya (here)", he says early on.
Before he begins "Tupelo", he says he wrote the song in "19 and 60".Before
"Let's Make It", he asks the crowd, rock and roll style, "Are you ready? Are
you ready?" After some cheers, he says "Alrighty," and again explains the
upcoming song was written in "19 and 60".

Hooker's delivery on this record is flawless. Somehow, his voice is pristine
and filthy at the same time. He opens the set with "Hobo Blues", and on the
ensuing "Maudie", you can't help but empathize when he sings "Why'd ya hoit
me so bad?"

A cover of Willie Dixon's "I Can't Quit You Baby" is reverent and "Stop Now
Baby" is choppy and danceable. The aforementioned "Tupelo" is another
standout and "Sometimes You Male Me Feel So Bad" is a highlight. On
"Sometimes", Hooker's voice dares to scrape the bowels of hell on the verses
only to soar toward heaven on the choruses. His talking-blues style on the
verses meshed with a sweeter, mellifluous delivery on the choruses shows a
true singer using his natural instrument to its fullest extent.

"Boom Boom", made popular by a TV commercial, is the second track in which
Hooker trades his acoustic guitar for an electric. He introduces an
alternate take of "Hobo Blues" with a real-life story about riding the
rails, but again Hooker sounds like he's looking back at the bad times with
fondness in his heart. Another version of "Boom Boom" closes the set.

Accompanied usually only by his own guitar and sometimes Bill Lee's bass,
Hooker bravely bares it all in these sets recorded in Newport in 1960 and
1963. Amazingly, with just those tools and simple, short songs (most are in
the three-minute range), he's able to fully command the audience and the
album listener. He can't hide his voice, he can't hide any of his
shortcomings – as a performer and as a man – and, most importantly, he can't
hide his heart. And, 40 years later, we are the beneficiaries.

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