On John Lee Hooker Jr.'s 2006 release, Cold as Ice, the well-traveled bluesman belts out the simple refrain, "I was raised up, on Jimmy Reed, John Lee Hooker, and black eyed peas." Minus the line about his favorite legumes, it was quite the preview for two stellar blues releases dropping this week from the vaults of the historic Vee-Jay label. If you like your blues as potent as you like your moonshine, then hearing about reissues of classic Jimmy Reed and John Lee Hooker material should make you as intrigued as it does skeptical. You already know not to expect new songs — everything Hooker and Reed ever recorded is already out there, and the only reason to buy these reissues as stocking stuffers is to help ensure that their great-grandkids don't starve.
That assessment can certainly be said for the reissue of I'm John Lee Hooker, which is great if you've never listened to the blues icon and redundant if you have. While naysayers might leave it at that, fact is, to hear his country drawl tear into songs like "I'm So Excited" and "Little Wheel," no matter how much Hooker material you own, won't stop a smile from walking across your face. Hooker was the quintessential bluesman, born to nothing, who made a career out of explaining the black experience through boogie woogie better than anyone else in history. So while I'm John Lee Hooker doesn't add anything new to his canon, it's one of the first records he ever recorded under his real name, and it's the album that made him famous beyond the east side of Detroit. Songs like "Crawling King Snake," "I'm in the Mood," and "Hobo Blues" are among the best tunes here, and what Vee-Jay brings to the mix is an ability to make these tracks readily available to novice blues fans out there needing an entry point.
For fans of Reed, however, the new reissue of Jimmy Reed at Carnegie Hall actually is an educational treat. There's an entire culture built around the legend of Reed — his epilepsy, his boozing, and his melodic harmonica playing are all here for the listener to take notice of. You can actually hear his wife whispering the lyrics to him on these recordings because Reed was too drunk to remember them. But what Reed lacked in sobriety, he made up for in skill, influencing an entire generation of mouth harp and guitar players with his gutbucket approach to the genre. The music here is all solid and extra Southern. Don't let the title of this disc fool you, though. The funniest thing about At Carnegie Hall, which was originally released as a double album in 1961, is that it wasn't even recorded at Carnegie! It was made in recording studios in New York and Chicago.