Album Review: Various Artists – Howlin’ Wolf & His Wolf Gang

Truth in labeling is a valued quality. With that in mind, it’s worth pointing out right up front that – although it’s clearly labeled as such – this is not, in fact, a Howlin’ Wolf album. Chester Burnett is the featured artist on less than one-third of the album’s tracks. It’s also not really a live album; all of the recordings save for the Howlin’ Wolf numbers (and one other) were cut in the studio. This Austrian release is compiled from a wide variety of recordings made between the mid ‘70s and 1996.

All that said, despite its mishmash character, Howlin’ Wolf & His Wolf Gang has its moments. The unifying quality of the set is the involvement of Wolf’s supporting musicians. Saxophonist Eddie Shaw, pianist Emery “Detroit Jr.” Williams, Jr. and guitarist Hubert Sumlin were all Wolf sidemen in 1975.

The first five tracks on the disc feature Eddie Shaw at ACME Studio in Chicago, drawing from four separate sessions in 1990, ‘92, ‘94 and 1996. On vocals, harmonica and saxophone, Shaw is backed on most tracks by a core lineup of guitarist Johnny B. Moore and bassist Tim Taylor. Other players variously include guitarists John Primer or Vann Shaw. Eddie Shaw leads his bands through three original tunes: “Highway 61 Bound,” “Fannie Mae Jones” and the rollicking, boastful blues of “Got to Go Now.” A pair of Willie Dixon compositions, “Built for Comfort” and the perennial “Little Red Rooster” round out the Shaw part of the set. The performances are solid, Shaw’s in fine form, and the live-in-the-studio recording vibe is just right.

Unfortunately, despite their historical importance, the Howlin’ Wolf tracks were captured in dreadful fidelity. Recorded at the newly opened 1815 Club in Chicago across three nights in July 1975, they’re difficult listening. If one braves the sonic murk, Wolf can be heard singing and playing harmonica; his guitar playing is indistinct in the mix. Purportedly he’s backed by Sumlin, Detroit Jr. and Shaw, but intrepid listeners will find it a challenge to detect their participation in this execrable, bootleg-quality recording.

Easier on the ears is a live Detroit Jr. cut from 1978 in Vienna, “Call My Job.” This, too, is clearly an amateur recordings of dodgy quality, but compared with the Wolf tracks, it’s far less likely to induce a headache. The band is loose in the extreme, but Detroit Jr.’s electric piano work is thrilling. Two studio cuts from 1994 sound great, even though they’re pretty much the same song.

Three Hubert Sumlin tracks dating from 1991 round out the collection. Sumlin’s “You Can’t Change Me” is easily the best track on the entire disc, showcasing the slow-burn blues artistry of the guitarist. A pair of acoustic duets featuring John Primer, “No Place to Go” and “I’ve Been Gone” explore the subtle side of Sumlin’s guitar work.

As long as one knows what they’re getting into with this set, Howlin’ Wolf & His Wolf Gang is an intermittently worthwhile listening experience.