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Lil’ Ed & the Blues Imperials - Full Tilt

Alligator Records

This is one raucous front-man. Lil’ Ed Williams is a declarative singer, in the mold of young Muddy Waters, Johnnie Taylor, an unsophisticated Edwin Starr, if you will. Should you want refinement or subtlety you’ll have to go elsewhere. His Imperials are in-synch with his aggressive approach and provide a solid, if mono-dynamic backing for Lil’Ed to practice his art on his own terms.

Williams’ skill as a guitarist ranks with Son Seals and Homesick James Williamson. The intensity is not to be denied, but the imagination and the technique are simply absent. He slips between standard left-hand fingering and bottleneck slide, sometimes to good effect. As a slide player one can tell he admires Robert Nighthawk, but doesn’t have the superior musicality that Nighthawk possessed.

The Imperials are due some extra respect. Though the drum sound is right out of 1984, that’s in the producer’s lap. Drummer Kelly Littleton does a fine job of setting and holding every groove. He plays the Chicago shuffles well and the Texas ‘scoop’ shuffle, too. The funkier stuff is solid and the slow blues are fine. Bass player Pookie Young, while demonstrating minimal flair, is one who holds his patterns without seeking any attention at all. Jerome Arnold and Johnny Gaydon are likely the heart of his inspiration. Some extra points are also due Michael Garrett. As a second guitarist, he invests some thought and energy in building rhythm parts that add to the texture and color to several of the songs. Michael, listen to some Jimmy Nolen and Jimmie Vaughan to get even better. Without Garrett’s contribution Ed would have a less potent band.

The piano, organ and horn section additions sound like after-thoughts. The color and depth that any of these might add are nullified by the fact that they are obviously there to add sorely needed variety. All that they do for me is point out how mono-dimensional this CD is prone to be.

The songs are the main dish of any Blues recording. Gathering lyrics and then picking a “type” of song ain’t what real writers do. Perhaps Ed aimed for ‘better than average’ songs, but nothing on this recording makes that kind of mark. Williams composed four tunes, James Young contributed one and two covers are noted. Seven tunes are not credited—perhaps just as well.

The opener is a raw, driving song, as declarative as they come. “Hold That Train” recalls lame rock licks of the early 60s but here rises to the level of a decent tune. It chugs rather than ‘choogles’ and connects, to my ear, to Big Joe Williams’ dark explorations.

“Housekeeping Job” reveals something personal I suspect, something real in Ed’s day-to-day life. The groove is dynamite but the content is thin. It does reflect this moment in economic time, though. Blues comfort?

It’s nice to hear words like “e-mail” and “fax” demonstrating that a modern Bluesman isn’t pretending to know anything about cotton, boxcars, and store porchin’. Still this song, “Don’t Call Me,” ain’t much of a tune.

The MoTown “First I Look at the Purse” is a refreshing choice. I suspect Ed drew on Jay Geils’ 1970 version rather than Smokey’s original. His approach is an interpretation that one might expect from a bar band, raucous and noisy. Still, it’s a great break from the 12-bar standard.

If you’ve heard “High Heel Sneakers” (which I know you have) “Love Don’t Live Here Anymore” won’t thrill you much.

“Candy Sweet” is the kind of filler that no one needs to hear. It is a set-closer for the second best Blues band in your town or region. Grabbing stock verses and phrasing them over a nice rhythm doe not constitute song writing.

About “Life Got in the Way,” it is a slow, mournful piece. It’s a song out of the Elmore James realm. The opening guitar phrase has been played ten-thousand times and calls to mind Jeremy Spencer as quickly as Elmore. The choice of tone and vibrato for the organ is quite simply bad. It’s probably the best composition on this disc.

“My Baby Moves Me” is “What’d I Say” using the semi-common “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” progression. Think of Muddy’s magnificent “She Moves Me” and see whom you believe.

Albert King’s “As the Years Go Passing By” or Ray Charles’ “I Believe to My Soul” are incredible minor-key Blues songs. “Every Man Needs a Good Woman, contributed by bassist James Young, is not.

Ed chose to close the CD with the band’s current break song, something gleaned from Hound Dog Taylor. It is simply “Shake Your Moneymaker” that insists that the band needs to “Take Five.” Only Jimmy Johnson’s break song ever earned a place on a recorded set.
I like this band. I don’t like these songs.

Reviewer John Harrelson has been playing Blues since 1965 and worked in virtually every genre of music; Folk, Country, Jazz, R&B and Rock. He holds a Ph.D in Historical Musicology from the Claremont Graduate University and a B.A. in Anthropology and Ethnomusicology.

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