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Omar & The Howlers – Essential Collection

Ruf Records

CD 1: 15 tracks; 64:36 minutes. CD 2: 15 tracks; 58:56 minutes

Omar, where have you been all my life? Or perhaps, considering that Kent “Omar” Dykes has been “making the Blues rock” for 50 years and has a string of hits longer than my arm, the better question is - Where have I been? If you aren’t already hooked on this Austin-based band, then this 2-CD set called Essential Collection is the perfect introduction.

Generally, I do not have much appreciation for a CD until I’ve listened to it two, maybe three times. However, Essential Collection was the exception to that rule, as I liked it almost immediately. I think you will, too, and here’s why: it contains Omar’s best work, and (for those with a low tolerance for boredom) it has lots of variety.

The set includes one disc that’s a “best of” Omar & The Howlers’ work, spanning 20-some years. The other disc contains 15 of “Omar’s Picks,” that highlight his “influences and heroes” – songs he feels are his best work, or of significance to him because of the memories they hold, or the people he has been privileged to work with. You sense that he had trouble narrowing this down to 30 choice cuts, because there is no filler here. Every song is a keeper. And if you like what you hear, you can always go back and check out some of his earlier albums.

Essential Collection is a great synopsis of Omar’s best, as it offers more variety than your local all-you-can-eat buffet. With some CDs, you get two styles: fast blues and slow blues. With Essential Collection, you get songs like “Magic Man” and “Got My Heart Set On You,” with a Bo Diddley-type rhythm. This makes perfect sense as both Omar and Bo Diddley were born in McComb, Mississippi (population less than 15,000). You get “Boogie Man” and “I’m Wild About You,” giving the nod to John Lee Hooker; and “Tears Like Rain” that sounds just a little like Stevie Ray Vaughan. You also get a bit of swamp rock, jazz, Cajun-style, hill/rockabilly, slide and yes, some sweet, slow blues.

It’s hard to narrow down my list of favorite cuts on these CDs, but one would have to be “Work Song,” a jazz tune written by Nat Adderly, with lyrics by Oscar Brown, Jr. I grew up hearing this as an instrumental, but Omar’s vocals make it even more appealing. I also really like “Bad Seed,” with its Latin beat and muffled-sounding guitar; “Burn It To the Ground,” which is your classic blues revenge rant; and “Life Without You,” featuring some moody minor chords and a terrific guitar solo.

Even Omar’s voice displays amazing range and diversity. His classic sound is a low growl that’s a bit like Howlin’ Wolf – but closer to Wolfman Jack (with a southern accent). You’ll hear more of a standard, mid-range voice in “I Want You” and the Willie Dixon tune, “Built For Comfort.” In “Mississippi Hoo Doo Man,” you’ll hear a somewhat higher-range, John Fogerty-style, yell; and with “Alligator Wine,” Omar’s high-pitched, screechy yell almost puts you in mind of AC/DC.

In addition to having virtually no filler and great variety, this 2-CD set also passes the American Bandstand test - in other words, you can dance to it. Close your eyes and listen (especially to the live cuts), and you’ll be transported to some outdoor blues festival where half the crowd is perpetually dancing…people are smiling, Omar is smiling, and everybody’s having a good time. My one, small complaint with this Essential Collection is that you lose the vocals a little bit in Track 2 of CD 1, “East Side Blues.” This is understandable in a live cut, but unfortunate, as I believe this to be one of the best songs in the set.

Congratulations, Omar, on your 50 years in the business. This Essential Collection is sure to thrill your old fans and gain you some new ones. Here’s wishing you many more…years and fans.

Footnote: Throughout this review, I have extensively referenced Omar (Kent Dykes) himself, with little mention of his band, The Howlers. This is not meant to dismiss their considerable contribution to the final product. It is because The Howlers appear to be an ever-changing group. Check out Omar’s website and you’ll see an extensive list of band members – and this doesn’t even include collaborations with other headliners, like Jimmie Vaughan. This is not unusual for someone who has performed for decades and thrives on variety (e.g. Eric Clapton).

Reviewer Sheila Skilling is a self-professed “blues fan by marriage,” who was hooked by her husband’s musical preferences, but reeled in by the live performances of Stevie Ray Vaughan, Buddy Guy and others. She lives in the Minneapolis area.

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