Louisiana Red ‘At Onkel Pö’s Carnegie Hall / Hamburg 1977’ 2LP/2CD (Jazzline) 5/5

You expect some degree of sadness in any artist under the blues canopy. We know someone will have died, or run off to the bayou, we might even hear mention of a dog – It’s kind of expected, albeit cliché – there will be mention though of peas and rice! The reality is far harder to grasp by a western, modern society. Who can argue with the blues and the overwhelming hurt it portrays when you read that not only did Louisiana Red (real name Iverson Minter) lose his mother days after giving birth in 1932, but that his father was then lynched by the Ku Klux Klan. That pain, that suffering in the deep south had been part of life since the late 1800s. So it is from those African-American work songs and spirituals that we, thankfully, have this music, the blues, the Delta blues, Louisiana Blues even.

Although one can not overlook his early work with John Lee Hooker‘s Detroit band, it is often cited that “Sweet Blood Call” cemented Red’s growth in popularity, turning the blues on its side with lyrics “I have a hard time missing you baby, with my pistol in your mouth. You may be thinking about going north woman, but your brains are staying south” giving off an eery Tarantino-Esque concern. Shouldn’t we have moved away from such notions and sing about butterflies and flowers? Not at all. The blues does indeed run deeper than most art forms. It’s the real denim deal.

You can hear the early 60s British sound The Yardbirds and Rolling Stones had latched on to when revisiting Red’s music of 1963, in songs like ‘Ride On Red, Ride On’ and ‘Two Fifty Three’ from ‘The Lowdown Back Porch Blues’ album, although The Yardbirds would credit their experience with Sonny Boy Williamson more so, I can hear the Stones’ sound all over Red’s music. Perhaps when Red’s standing may not be as high as expected over the 50 year outpouring, although admittedly there were awards later on in his career, I myself was oblivious to his huge catalogue but unconvinced the aforementioned were not absorbed in it at the birth of their own ‘sound’. So, where does anyone start with the blues and how can inspiration be attained? Perhaps artists like Robert Johnson or Jimmy Reed were around the young Minter’s spaces. That combination of voice, harmonica and guitar was a well-worn look and one he must have focused towards whilst befriending John Lee Hooker and Eddie Burns, as you do.

Move on through four 70s studio albums in ‘Sings The Blues’, volumes 1 and 2 of ‘The Blues Purity’ before ‘Live + Well’, with a solo ‘Live at Montreux’ performance that gained much favour from the festival (unreleased until 2003) and you find yourself listening to the session in question, the double vinyl of ‘At Onkel Pö’s’. A previously unreleased live set recorded on June 14, 1977 by NDR (formed by the famous avant-garde composer, Rolf Liebermann and Hans Gertberg, back in 1958 and whom during the same year of ’77 were working with Dudu Pukwana, Johnny Dyani, Dollar Brand, Ian Carr, Barbara Thompson and Urszula Dudziak, amongst many others) from Hamburg’s take on Carnegie Hall. Joined on stage by voice, guitar and harmonica with occasional audience appreciation for ambiance, asking the audience “if they love the blues?”. An establishment of some significant standing where there was already a steady flow of recordings from the venue; James Booker, Les McCann, Johnny Griffin, Buddy Guy, Peter Herbolzheimer, Sabu Martinez, Dieter Reith, Al Jarreau, Michael Chapman can all be found on record. Be convinced then that Red would have been a recognised force of the time, particularly throughout Europe, where during this period he could be found in London before marriage settled him in Hanover.

‘At Onkel Pö’s Carnegie Hall’ arrives with no less than 21 songs. All solo work with, at the time of recording, a few distinctive favourites on the set-list; ‘Too Poor To Die’, ‘Death Of Ealase’, the foot-tapper ‘The Whole World’, ‘ Who Been Fooling You’ and the popular ‘Sweetblood Call’, surrounded by, I suspect, many unheard pieces by the crowd on the night in question, and songs very few ears may have even heard before this release. One thing would be sure, his acoustic “Honky Tonk” slide-guitar and voice was distinctive Alabama born Louisiana Red and this recording truly delves into the man and his wondrous sound at a time when, for me, he was at his most captivating, and a new recording that betters by far the acoustic quality of other releases on labels Ornament, Blue Labor and Interfusion of the time.

I found myself particularly drawn to a selection of songs. ‘Good God Woman’ guitar work is fabulous and one of the highlights on the album; the clarity of his voice on ‘When My Mama Was Living’ is exceptional, as is the Jazzline recording quality – which can not be understated throughout the entire 1hr 30min; the clink of glasses from the audience on tracks like ‘Crime Emotion’ give the new listener a sense of presence in the room, which is why this writer finds live recordings engaging; and ‘Red’s Dream No. 2’ and ‘Red’s Boogie’ with the all-important harmonica and guitar combo that he is recognised and revered for; whilst not dismissing the raised eyebrow moment during ‘Travelling Boogie’, an unusual piece, which is distinguished by his foot tapping technique (myself picturing Seasick Steve bashing the life out of his stomp box while listening). It is a show-stopping performance and any listener new to Red or fan will be nothing more than completely submerged in the recording and his story-telling.

Sleeve-note writer Michael Laages provides both English and German translations. One that presents itself in the elegance of glorious 70s gatefold authenticity. Red passed away February 25th 2012, aged 79 in Hannover, Germany. A prolific writer with an overwhelming recoding output to his name(s) – Rocky Fuller being an earlier manifestation around 1949-1952 with a 78 RPM collectible and work beside Forrest City Joe all out there to be discovered. Double-CD version includes 12-page booklet.

Steve Williams