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Published: 2004/01/27
by Glenn Alexander

At the Crossroads: The Blues of Robert Johnson – John Hammond

Vanguard Records 79751-2

Traditional blues music is all but lost in modern blues. With it now being

more of a happy-go-lucky soundtrack for white America rather than a

painfully honest and gripping music born out of a culture of oppressed

people, authentic blues music is drifting towards a cultural death. It is

by no means right to say that blues should be enjoyed or played by black

people only, but when blues is being so drastically altered from the

traditional form into a music more appropriate for white audiences' tastes,

it is hard to be optimistic about the hope of preserving the idiom as a

powerful voice of black America.

However, the voices and souls of many traditional blues artists still live

on through the efforts of the genre's most adept interpreters, and with John

Hammond's At The Crossroads, he brings back the very soul of one of

the blues' most innovative and influential voices — Robert Johnson. On this

collection of songs from Hammond's many blues albums, he takes us through

Robert Johnson's music with striking authority and grace. One of Johnson's

most defining characteristics was his uncanny ability to blend his guitar

and vocals into a unified voice. Hammond manages this task with a kind of

rustic grace and soulful passion that is rarely heard in modern blues.

From the dreary and slippery "Stones In My Passway" to the freight train

stomp of "Walkin' Blues," Hammond captures different sides of the blues with

a masterful touch. With commanding slide work on the unassailably emphatic

"Cross Road Blues" and the much-covered "Come On In My Kitchen," he uses the

slide in juxtaposition with his incredibly lonesome vocals with an attack

that is simply devastating.

While most of this collection is Hammond singing alone with his acoustic,

the last four tracks showcase him with electric guitar and a full band.

After being engrossed in the lonesome sound of Hammond playing solo, they

seem ill-placed at first, but manage to win you over when you hear just how

tight the band is and how little of Hammond's soulful and rugged guitar

sound is lost when he plugs in.

This collection should not be a replacement for an introduction to the real

thing, but it does serve as a clear and present reminder of just how

brilliant Johnson's all-too-short, 29-song career was. Hammond not only

reminds us of Johnson's brilliance, but helps us relive it, and that is the

sign of an interpreter not only adept at illuminating someone else's genius,

but at keeping a treasured art form alive for just a little longer.

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