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Human jukebox

Snooks offers a gift for the wretched

by John Sinclair

[Snooks Eaglin] Snooks Eaglin is the Crescent City's secret weapon, a blind bombardier of the electric guitar who plays, nearing age 60, with more intensity, taste, mastery, and musical command than most anyone you can think of. And the kicker is, he gets better all the time.

The past 10 years -- since Snooks signed with BlackTop Records -- have been good to Eaglin's fans, giving us many hours of musical enjoyment by way of his albums (Baby, You Can Get Your Gun, Out of Nowhere, Teasin' You, and Soul's Edge), his exhilarating performances at JazzFest and around New Orleans, and some rare personal appearances outside Louisiana. His early work as a street singer is available on several CDs; his great R&B sides of 1960-'63, produced by Dave Bartholomew, were reissued by Capitol in 1995 as The Complete Imperial Recordings.

His new Live in Japan is a splendid document of his first Japanese tour, five dates with Little Sonny and Robert Jr. Lockwood that culminated in the Park Tower shows of December 9 and 10, 1995, happily captured there on tape by Blues Interactions Records. BlackTop has graced us with its American release, which is his first full-length live recording (though he can be heard on stage at Tiptina's in the BlackTop Blues-a-Rama series.)

Snooks took the stage at the Park Tower with the musical backing of a stellar Crescent City rhythm section anchored by his favorite runnin' pardner, bassist George Porter Jr., and drummer Jeffrey "Jellybean" Alexander. They're augmented by keyboard ace John Autin, whose piano and Hammond B-3 organ flesh out the stripped-down sound of Eaglin's customary trio quite nicely.

Snooks sounds very much at home before his Tokyo audience. He's relaxed and definitely ready to play, and he whips through his delightfully eclectic repertoire with fiery abandon, cooking like crazy from the first notes of Bill Doggett's "Quaker City" all the way through the wonderful James (Wee Willie) Waynes classic, "Travelin' Mood," that closes the set.

The familiar material is drawn mainly from his last two BlackTop albums, Teasin' You and Soul's Edge, with the added attraction of Eaglin's fervent take on Stevie Wonder's "Boogie On Reggae Woman" and the steaming Bill Doggett instrumental. He addresses the blues ballads with his usual emotive force, delivering impassioned readings of Earl Connelly King's "Don't Take It So Hard," Charles Brown's immortal "Black Night," and the fine Dan Penn composition "Nine Pound Steel."

Considered a sort of a human jukebox because of his enormous repertoire of popular songs and R&B evergreens and obscurities, Snooks generally makes his personal music out of the creations of others, charging their songs with his own soul, wit, energy, drive, and utter mastery of the expressive language of the electric guitar. Here, as usual, he honors some of his favorite New Orleans songwriters -- Smiley Lewis, Earl King, Dave Bartholomew -- with rollicking romps on "Down Yonder," "Josephine," "Lillie Mae," and "Yours Truly." And he puts his special twist on the obscure Earl King anthem "Soul Train." (Two more Earl King tunes, "Teasin' You" and "My Love Is Strong," were included on the Japanese release but do not appear here.)

This live set is highlighted by one of Snooks's rare originals, an Ash Wednesday reflection on Carnival in New Orleans called "I Went to the Mardi Gras" that bids to enter the musical pantheon of Mardi Gras songs along with the likes of "Jock-a-Mo," "Mardi Gras Mambo," "Go to the Mardi Gras," and "Big Chief." The tune was written with Tommy Ridgely, whose splendid BlackTop album Since the Blues Began was brightly illuminated by Snooks's sizzling guitar work, and it'll be heard at Carnival time for years to come.

If you're a Snooks Eaglin fanatic (like this writer), you'll be playing this live set again and again, enjoying the opportunity to hear the man in concert and relish his twisted comments between songs. If you don't have his BlackTop CDs, this album will serve as an introduction to one of the outstanding R&B figures of our time in a typically rewarding set at the peak of his considerable power as a guitarist, singer, and bandleader.

In any case, Live in Japan makes an excellent addition to the Snooks Eaglin oeuvre, and that's always good news. Our poor miserable world and its wretched inhabitants need more music like this, whether they're in Japan or the USA, and Snooks stands ready, as always, to answer the call.

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