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Little Joe Washington

Every Wednesday

With his hard-drinking and otherwise hard-living persona, it's amazing that Little Joe Washington -- the wildest of them all -- is the last of the Third Ward guitar slingers alive. And not just alive, but apparently thriving. His energy on stage often puts many people four decades younger to shame.

And until now, that liveliness has been pretty much all we've had to go on. Those of us who've seen Washington jump off his Schwinn and sit in at some random dive with whoever happened to be on the stage, or have heard one of the bootleg CDs or cassettes he hawks, can be forgiven for thinking of him as sort of a Sun Ra of the blues at best, and at worst, a court jester or out-and-out pest. The battered cowboy hat he always passes around even kind of looks like a jester's motley, Texas-style, and his whiskey-fueled romps on guitar and Casio keyboards range from the sublime to the ridiculous, sometimes in the space of two or three bars. You thought there might be a genius in there somewhere, but as with the sayings of Yogi Berra, you were never sure if it was talent or folly.

Keeping Little Joe sublime was the sturdy task Austin producer Eddie Stout assigned himself, and on Washington's debut official release, Houston Guitar Blues, he succeeds, and a magnificent blues album is the result. Cut in one day in Austin on vintage tube amps with Delbert McClinton's keyboardist Nick Connolly, bassist Bill Campbell, and rhythm guitarist Clarence Pierce and drummer Willie Sampson of Austin's Eastside Kings, this is the wildest Houston blues record since Hop Wilson's day, not to mention one of the very best.

Little Joe Washington: The last of the Third Ward 
guitar slingers.
Little Joe Washington: The last of the Third Ward guitar slingers.

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Hop Wilson's day was 1961, to be exact, and this record sounds like a lost relic from that era, a cache of perfectly preserved recordings found in Ivory Lee Semien's garage or some such. Back then, the best blues records combined the ability to out-and-out blister, a pretty high level of musicianship and a willingness to let blues feeling trump sonic perfection. Robert Nighthawk's Live on Maxwell Street comes to mind as a classic example of that genre, but that species of album has been getting more and more endangered ever since.

Sure, the Fat Possum stuff's raw and all that, but you couldn't imagine R.L. Burnside venturing off into the Crusaders-style jazz of "Song for My Father" (wherein, alas, the drummer lets Washington down), or Junior Kimbrough taking on something like Washington's remake of his own 45 "Bossa Nova No. 2." Elsewhere, Washington rips through a shuffle or three, conjures the ghost of Guitar Slim on the churchy tunes "Someone Loves Me" and "Last Tear" and the specter of Alex Moore on his piano number "Don't Do It," with his vocal cords if not his fingers.

But for my money, it's on the gutbucket guitar stuff that Washington really shines. Washington is the rare singer-guitarist whose hoarse voice and downright hurtful guitar can make the same old 12-bar ba-bump-ba-shwap sound new and urgent again. A great slow blues should give you chills, should make you cry out loud, should make you close your eyes and take you to another zone. That's just what Washington does on the majestic slow-burners "How Long" and "Unfinished Business," wherein Washington's scat-singing over the top of his stinging and always inventive lead guitar could wring a tear from a Baath Party executioner.

And it's a telling title, that last. We may have lost Johnny "Guitar" Watson, Albert Collins, Clarence Green, Clarence Hollimon, Johnny Clyde Copeland and Joe "Guitar" Hughes in the last ten years, but Little Joe Washington's long-awaited official debut proves unequivocally that Houston's blues guitarists are not done.

 
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