This Willie Dixon Tribute CD features Boston’s blues man Johnny Barnes interpreting Dixon’s music though his own ears instead of recording them as a cover band. Dixon wrote songs for other blues artists, and his songs were covered by many American and British musicians during the 1960s and 1970s. Barnes was influenced as much by these 60s and 70s interpretations as he was by Dixon’s original recordings. Wisely, he gives a nod to those who covered Dixon.
Wasting no time, Barnes jumps right into the groove with a punchy version of “I Am The Blues.” It has the trademark blues guitar riff, a melodic phrase played down and dirty Chicago style. Like most Dixon songs, the tune holds together around the rhythm section. Dixon, a house bass player for Chess Records, could turn a song in any direction with the accents he plucked from his stand-up.
“I Just Want To Make Love To You,” written by Dixon for Muddy Waters, again gets its central oomph from the thrust of the rhythm section. Barnes’ version was clearly influenced by the Foghat version, as its frenetic pace indicates. Gordon Beadle’s sax line and Barnes lead guitar phrasing were clearly influenced by classic rock.
“Back Door Man,” a Willie Dixon tune popularized on The Doors’ first album, gets another fresh interpretation here. Beadle wails out a blistering sax melody as Barns’ sings these verses with authority, properly pausing just before the lyric “the men don’t know what the little girls understand.”
Three tracks in and you know you’re listening to a very fine tribute album. Barnes infuses these new interpretations with a modern energy that couldn’t be captured on the equipment Dixon had available to him in his day.
Barnes’ version of “Let Me Love You, Baby” could have been a hit on the free form radio station programming in the 1970s. Barnes’ bold vocal take matches his fierce lead and rhythm interplays.
Brandon Pritchard is masterful on bass and Joe Pet smacks his skins with rumbling authority. David Maxwell is here too, and he’s not just along for the ride. He drives some of these tunes with his piano and organ. He tinkles the ivories with a lot of class and control.
“I Can’t Quit You, Baby” features the same energy level of Led Zeppelin when they recorded it for the 1969 debut and “The Hootchie Cootchie Man” features Jon Butcher playing lead guitar with his simmering style.
“I’m Ready” jumps out of the gate like a wild stallion. Montgomery puts heart and soul into this, and Beadle plays it like there’s no tomorrow. If this song doesn’t make you want to punch out that school boy, check your pulse.
“Mellow Down Easy” is a tasty mash of snappy harp, sly sax, and funky drum fills. Pet owns this one. His manic drumming keeps this tune spinning, jumping, and bumping. A lot goes on around him, but Pet is paying it all out with his backbeat.
“I Ain’t Superstitious” gets a heavy dose of Barnes guitar caterwauling and the oomph from the rhythm section is beyond the call of duty. Pritchard pays out a lot of Knobby bass notes here and he creates a respectable rumble for Barnes to go crazy on top.
“You Shook Me” gives the same lilting backbeat that made this song great, and Maxwell’s piano keeps the song rooted in blues idioms. Led Zeppelin recorded this one on their debut too and they played it on two world tours before they wrote and recorded their own “original” blues song. Barnes’ interpretation pays homage to Led Zep’s high octane arrangement.
“Evil” is another wild romp and “Third Degree” is closer to traditional blues, Pet and Pritchard putting the energy on a leash and walking it around the block.
“Little Red Rooster” has been recorded and or performed live by many of the 1960s bands, The Rolling Stones, The Doors, and several others. Barnes brings this one back to its traditional roots. Maxwell plays it bluesy and takes his time, trading spaces with guest guitarist Forrest McDonald’s slide. It helps to have Montgomery putting his harp lines alongside that sweet slide.
This is simply a fantastic tribute album that will sell a lot of copies to blues and rock fans alike. It will also put a lot of pressure on Barnes to harness this music in a series of live shows.