There have been tributes for several of the great harmonica players of the past recently but not one yet on a major blues label for Little Walter. No doubt his ground-breaking work is still so powerful, no one wanted to risk the comparison such a tribute would inevitably cause. Billy Branch has decided it was time. Long a blues festival headliner with eleven albums under his belt, Branch learned firsthand from James Cotton, Junior Wells, Carey Bell and Big Walter Horton, but Little Walter passed in 1968, seven years before Branch hit Chicago. Little Walter had his Aces and Branch has his Sons of Blues: Sumito “Ariyo” Ariyoshi on piano, Giles Corey on guitar, Marvin Little on bass and Andrew “Blaze” Thomas on drums provide just as much support as Walter received. They stay fairly close to the Little Walter originals but this is a modern blues band and they perform these songs their way, especially in the prominence given to Ariyo’s piano. Branch rarely copies Little Walter on harp, after all he is a virtuoso himself, just check out this version of “Mellow Down Easy”, emphasizing its jazzy side. The same thing happens to this version of “My Babe”, along with some tempo changes and a quite wonderful guitar solo from Corey. “Juke” also gets an entirely new arrangement with excellent extended soloing from Branch. Even “Last Night”, perhaps the most covered of Little Walter’s songs, sounds fresh here, no mean feat. “Just Your Fool/Key to the Highway” is a harp solo built around snippets of these songs which was a little disappointing in that “Key to the Highway” is one of my favourite Little Walter performances, a full version was something I very much wanted to hear. This is a generous fourteen-song program that will please fans of Chicago blues of any era. With all the emphasis on Little Walter’s harp innovations, his songs themselves are often overlooked but in the hands of a band like this, we might see a revival of his songbook too. We also get a bonus track of Marion Diaz, Little Walter’s daughter, reminiscing about home life with Dad. It’s a much different picture than the one we usually get of Little Walter’s personality. The official web site for Billy Branch and the Sons of Blues is www.billybranch.com and of course you should always visit www.alligator.com. 

August 2019 - James Anthony
Blues Revival #2 Featuring Sean Pinchin