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Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee — Live from the Ash Grove

It doesn’t take much. By the time the first verse of the first song arrives—12 seconds into “Trouble in Mind”—they’ve already hooked you. But that has always been the case with this ultra-infectious duo: Let harpist Sonny Terry and guitarist Brownie McGhee even perform something as mundane as a grocery list or a stack of junk mail, and you’d be swept up by their innate good time. Because when the blues just need to take a break from all the heaviness for a bit, they request Sonny and Brownie to lodge their complaints.

 

By 1973, when this spirited Los Angeles evening inside the Ash Grove club lit off, their brand of country blues had been hooking listeners since 1941, when the two first joined forces. And all done without smoke and mirrors or flashy theatrics. Nothing more than, simply, a bare harmonica, an unplugged guitar, and a boatload of highly electrifying chemistry between a pair of natural-born charmers.

 

And all due to a simple twist of fate. You see, Terry’s first six-stringed partner was the similarly sightless Blind Boy Fuller. If you rifle through Fuller’s prewar records, that’s a 20some-year-old Sonny huffing and puffing behind 1938’s “Georgia Ham Mama” and 1940’s far rowdier “Bus Rider Blues.” McGhee likewise crossed paths with the Piedmont fingerpicker (and, in turn, his harpist). But instead of making records with him, Brownie absorbed enough immaculate technique to get momentarily dubbed Blind Boy Fuller No. 2. Then, Fuller’s premature death enabled Sonny and Brownie to forge their own musical partnership and hit the road to stardom. They never looked back.

 

Their onstage telepathy is in full swing here. Take “Midnight Special” or “Packin’ Up Gettin’ Ready to Go.” While both songs gallop along at a good clip, lead vocals get passed around, seconded, and prodded in between jointly swarmed choruses. Terry has the burred voice; McGhee, the burnished one. To up the excitement, Terry sporadically fires off yelps that spike high into the sky like bottle rockets.

 

However, his main means of flying around the room comes from that harmonica squalling behind cupped hands, flush with the level of downhome wizardry to rival the urban flipside of Little Walter’s attack. “Blowin’ the Fuses” may shine with tactics galore, yet “Hootin’ the Blues” stands as the feat of lung capacity by alternately blending harping and hollering into one continuous stream. Whooping it up, to use Sonny’s lingo. Brownie, for his part, was the consummate East Coast guitarist. Crisp, clean, springy lines march along the bite-sized wisdom tucked into “My Father’s Word” just as proficiently as with the saucy innuendo heating “(I Gotta Look) Up Under Your Hood.”

 

Somehow, this performance (boosted by “C’mon If You’re Comin’,” an impeccable rag with a wicked little shimmy, plus another bonus track from an Ash Grove show in 1965) has remained unheard. Now, all these years later, Live from the Ash Grove still sounds incredibly fresh. Credit some of that to the bright fidelity, courtesy of Heider Studios’ recording expertise (Santana’s Abraxas; the Grateful Dead’s American Beauty; Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s Déjà Vu). Some to the euphoria of live music. But the bulk hails from ageless acoustic music made all the more vibrant from the two particular men making it.

 

These 40 minutes and 44 seconds with Sonny and Brownie are an irresistible, loose-limbed joy.

 

Label: Liberation Hall

Release Date: 6/21/24

Artist Website: www.liberationhall.com

 

Reviewed by Dennis Rozanski




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