Johnny Shines: The Blues Came Falling Down – Live 1973

A bluesman who’d retained the vitality of his youth

The music industry’s history is littered with talent that never managed to intersect popular acclaim, and such might have been the story of bluesman Johnny Shines, if not for a sideline as a photographer and a chance encounter with Howlin’ Wolf. Shines started gigging in the early ‘30s, and toured with Robert Johnson for several years, but recordings made for Columbia and Chess were consigned to the vault, and the few sides released on J.O.B. didn’t make a dent in the market. By the mid-50s Shines had withdrawn from performing and turned to the construction industry, but a sideline photographing Chicago club patrons put him in touch with Howlin’ Wolf, and in turn secured him a half-dozen tracks on Vanguard’s influential 1966 anthology, Chicago/The Blues/Today, Vol. 3.

Upon its release, the Vanguard album sparked the renown that circumstance had denied Shines for two decades. He recorded albums for several independent labels and toured the international blues circuit to wide acclaim before a stroke in 1980 sidelined him for several years. This 1973 performance, professionally recorded in the acoustically friendly Graham Chapel at Washington University in St. Louis, finds Shines in peak form. His guitar playing is crisp, nimble and deeply informed by decades steeped in the blues. At 58, his voice was still strong and supple, showing no signs of age, and his touring experience shows in a powerful command of the stage.

The set combines original material with a few songs by Robert Johnson, with the latter’s “Sweet Home Chicago” igniting the audience’s hand clapping. Shines largely performs solo, though he’s joined by Leroy Jodie Pierson on second guitar for three selections. He casually tunes and strums while providing song introductions and philosophical thoughts, often easing himself seamlessly into a song. His guitar playing offers a master class in the blues, but his singing is equally impressive in its nuance and emotion. The torchy “You’re the One I Love” and troubled “Tell Me Mama” are particularly mesmerizing, with the latter highlighted by Shines’ slide playing. This is a vital performance by a performer thoroughly enjoying the recognition of his history and rediscovery. [©2019 Hyperbolium]

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