Blues On The Road And To The Max
By David McGee

Jeff Healey
Ruf Records



Luther Allison
Ruf Records

Two beloved bluesmen, both ace guitarists and deeply humanistic in their approach to the music, both gone too soon (and both victims of cancer), are honored by Ruf Records with like-titled CDs (and in Luther Allison’s case, an accompanying DVD of part of the show memorialized on the CD) that both demonstrate their distinctive musicality and underscore how sorely missed both are on the contemporary scene, especially in the blues world.

Canadian blues master Jeff Healey, who passed away on March 2, 2008, at age 41, specialized on turning audience expectations on their head when he hit the stage. A Healey show drew from many stylistic wells, always seamlessly and authoritatively, in the playing and the singing alike. Here, in 11 performances captured live in Norway (2006), London and Toronto (both in 2007, May and November, respectively) and seamlessly sequenced into an impressive, smoothly flowing, near-hour-long set, Healey ranges far and wide for material—all the songs are covers—and delivers, no matter whether it’s the moody, stinging, downcast yearnings of Mark Knopfler’s “I Think I Love You Too Much” or the aggrieved urgency of his band’s swirling attack on Robert Johnson’s “Stop Breaking Down,” which is as notable as much for Healey’s gutsy singing as it is for his punchy, fat-noted guitar solos. Healey takes on two Beatles songs in convincing fashion: on a grinding “Come Together,” he advances the vocal urgency John Lennon brought to the original while not abandoning his own bluesy phrasing, and on a thick-textured “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” the warmth in his husky voice achieves the blend of reflection and remorseful remonstration that made George Harrison’s treatment so mesmerizing, and he also rolls out a striking, howling guitar solo as a worthy replacement for Eric Clapton’s uncredited contribution to the original. The dark, malevolent, surging stomp that is Willie Dixon’s “Hoochie Coochie Man” benefits both from the delight Healey takes in his shouting, growling vocal and from a fevered, hyper-energized juggernaut of a guitar solo courtesy Randy Bachman, making a memorable cameo.

Jeff Healey, ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps,’ Montreux 1997

In addition to their always stellar accompaniment, Healey’s band members take over the spotlight on a couple of noteworthy occasions: Dave Murphy tackles Gregg Allman’s signature “Whipping Post” with punishing, relentless fury, vocally and on the organ, leaving room in the proceedings for Healey to craft an upper neck solo of exquisite, succinct eloquence; and bassist Alec Fraser (who produced this recording, by the way) does a fine job in the dour-vocal department on Cream’s “White Room,” as Healey works up to a froth on the wah-wah when his guitar solo comes around—all in all, a spot-on recreation of late-era psychedelia that should make the song’s architects proud. Fraser clearly knew what he was doing here, not only when singing, but in sequencing this live disc for maximum emotional impact at the end. The penultimate song is a tender recreation of Crosby, Stills & Nash’s didactic “Teach Your Children,” complete with affecting, staggered harmonizing supporting Healey’s straightforward balladic rendering of the tune’s message, which precedes the delightful, rocking closer, “Santa Bring My Baby Back To Me,” a driving chestnut from Elvis’s first Christmas album that the band seems to enjoy as much as the King and his men did back in ’57. As the ensuing applause dies down, we hear Healey say, “That’s what it’s all about.” And you know, he’s right.

Luther Allison, an amped-up version of ‘I Want To Know,’ from his Soul Fixin’ Man album (Alligator, 1994). Note: this performance is not included on Allison’s Songs From the Road album, reviewed here.

The backstory on the Luther Allison live album, recorded July 4, 1997, at the Festival Internationale de Jazz Montreal, is that it took place only four days prior to the artist being diagnosed with terminal cancer; he died a month later. To see him perform on the DVD, and to hear the full set on CD, is to be in disbelief that this gentleman was on his last legs. Not only does he look to be in fine shape, but the energy and emotional wallop he packs into the hour-plus of music on the CD is more like what you’d expect from someone considerably younger even than his 57 years (he died on August 12, five days short of his 58th birthday). But 57 ain’t old by any stretch, and to the bluesman, to age is to be in your prime—witness the great albums released last year by Buddy Guy and B.B. King, for example. There are some monumental, powerhouse blitzkriegs in this set, starting perhaps or arguably with the eight-minute opus, “What Have I Done Wrong,” which evolves from a rather routine, chugging exercise fueled by Allison’s tasty, stinging fills into a driving, fevered workout with some rousing piano work by Mike Vlahakis and a volley of incendiary riffing and spiky soloing by Allison at the end of this Magic Sam gem. Sticking mostly to his own tunes, though, Allison offers up a heaping helping of those Chicago blues he mastered while playing with Howlin’ Wolf and James Cotton before going on his own (and eventually relocating to France, where he remained for 15 years until Alligator Records lured him back Stateside in 1994 to a true renaissance that found him racking up more blues awards than he could count). He had so much going for him—in the cool, organ-drenched R&B groove and gritty vocal he brings to the eleven-minute exploration of “There Comes a Time,” you can understand why Motown made him one of its few blues signings (he’s on the Cooley High soundtrack, in fact, with “Luther’s Blues”); in the funky, high spirited drive of “Low Down and Dirty,” you hear a classic blending of housewrecking gospel influences in the growling vocal and southern rock propulsion in his frenzied slide work, which rises to frightening intensity about halfway through; and in the set closing “Serious” he drenches us in deep urban blues, his gold top Les Paul sending up an epic roar, his voice unburdening itself of mess of pain, and his trusty backing group, the James Solberg Band, erecting a formidable wall of sound fueled again by Vlahakis’s churchy piano obbligatos. The majesty inherent in Allison’s vision of his musical outpourings is in full flower, in the impressive synergy between he and the band, in the savvu arrangements, and in the impeccable sense of drama evident in each unfolding song. No other blues man was quite like Luther, and Songs From the Road superbly illustrates this undisputed truth. It allows you to see, to hear and to believe all at once.

Buy Jeff Healey’s Songs From The Road at

Buy Luther Allison’s Songs From The Road at

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (
Website Design: Kieran McGee (
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY;, Alicia Zappier (New York)
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024