It's inevitable, if perhaps unfair, to judge the music of the rediscovered blues artists of the 1960's with the recordings they made in their prime in the 1920's and 1930's. Sleepy John Estes held up quite well in what was a very successful comeback; he cut several solid albums for Delmark and performed at festivals all over the US, Europe and even the Far East. On The Chicago Blues Scene is a remixed, remastered version on the 1968 album Electric Sleep, the title a play on the psychedelic records of Muddy Waters (Electric Mud) and Howlin' Wolf (This Is Howlin' Wolf's New Album), the latter called "birdshit" by Wolf for what it's worth.
Fortunately label owner Bob Koester was wise enough to forgo the psychedelic route, instead putting Estes in a modern Chicago blues context. Koester recalls the genesis of that decision: "…later that year (1964) in a sub-cellar jazz club in Dusseldorf, while John was touring Europe for the first time with the American Folk Blues Festival John sat in at an impromptu session with Hubert Sumlin, (Howling Wolf's guitarist), Sonny Boy Williamson, Sunnyland Slim and some other local musicians. I was amazed at how comfortably John was able to sing with such relative modernists. I promised John that one day we would cut an album with such a sound…"
On The Chicago Blues Scene is that album finding Estes backed by Sunnyland Slim on piano, Jimmy Dawkins on guitar, Carey Bell on harp, Odie Payne on drums and various bassist including Earl Hooker. Estes voice had coarsened over the years but he remained an expressive, still plaintive singer who's style remained utterly distinctive. Big Bill Broonzy aptly called Estes style "crying the blues", a good description of Estes high pitched, fragmented singing which, although blurred on these later recordings, is still highly expressive. As he did on his prior Delmark records, Estes draws extensively from his early records turning in fine versions of "Laura Had A Dream (originally titled "Little Laura Blues"), "Divin' Duck Blues"and a particularly strong take on "Everybody Oughta Make A Change" featuring some sensitive harmonica from Carey Bell. Bell also shines on "May West" a thinly veiled version of "Hobo Jungle" which he first cut in 1938 with Hammie Nixon on harmonica. "Sweet Little Flower" seems to be one of the few new numbers while the oddly titled "Newport Blues", a tribute to John Kennedy, was recorded on the album In Europe as "Blues For JFK."
All in all a worthwhile project that holds up quite well some 40 years down the line. The band acquits themselves well, playing with sensitivity and restraint, and Estes remains a striking and captivating singer. Still after listening to this record I can't help but hear the echo of those marvelous, poetic early sides when he was in the full flower of his creativity. If you haven't heard them I urge you to check them out.
May West (MP3)