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A Blues Traveler

Luther Allison
Blue Streak: Guitarist Luther Allison faces the music at the SC Blues Festival.

After 20 years of living in France, legendary American guitarist Luther Allison returns to the home of the blues

By Nicky Baxter

WHEN BLUESMAN LUTHER Allison made the decision to step into the rock arena in the late 1960s, blues loyalists cried foul play. Little wonder then that by the close of the 1970s, when the blues-rock phenomenon was on the wane, Allison decided to move--wah-wah pedal and all--to Europe, eventually settling in France, where he became a major star.

Now, after almost two decades, the expatriate, one of the headliners of this weekend's Santa Cruz Blues Festival, is considering returning to his homeland.

The critical success of 1994's Soul Fixin' Man (Alligator), Allison's first domestic release in some 20 years, was the initial indication that Allison was finally receiving some belated recognition in the States. Subsequent barnstorming U.S. tours--most notably an electrifying performance at the 1995 Chicago Blues Festival--a second album, Blue Streak, and multiple honors at the W.C. Handy Awards were further proof that Allison was well on his way to a full-scale comeback.

Like his guitar playing, Allison's conversation is by turns loquacious and barbed. "I just want to let people know that Luther Allison is back!" he growls proudly. The guitarist sounds as if he's ready to conquer the world. Indeed, he has just returned from a four-month tour of Europe and Madagascar.

Now that the home of the blues appears to be coming around, is Allison ready to repatriate? "If I feel people [here] are ready to recognize me ... maybe," he tells me. "Then again, it depends on how sales go on my new album."

Allison's latest release, Reckless, commences with the aptly named "Low Down and Dirty," on which Allison flaunts some stinging slide guitar and gravel-pitted vocals, digging his heels firmly in the Mississippi blues tradition. "You Can Run But You Can't Hide" is an homage to late mentor Freddie King, sprung into action by an elastic groove. "Living in the House of Blues" is a slow-burning number featuring a Hammond B3 organ. "I'm Back," the album's concluding track, sounds like peak-period James Brown propelled by an Allman Brothers­like guitar riff.

Returning to his pet peeve, Allison gripes, "I played with all those guys--Eric Clapton, the Rolling Stones--but it has always been hard to get that respect here." That may be true for the mass audience, but his peers have always known that Allison could play.

Even when he had dropped out of high school in the late 1950s and was fronting a band he named the Rolling Stones, they knew. Not long after disbanding the group, Allison was playing with Otis Rush, Magic Sam, Mighty Joe Young and others. The late Freddie King respected his work enough to recruit Allison to helm his band while King went off on a national tour.

Despite his indignation at what he sees as the slights of the past, by the close of our hour-long talk, Allison's crankiness has subsided. "Things have gotten a little bit better recently," he concedes. Ask him why he won't give up, and the guitarist doesn't hesitate. "I believe I got somethin' people want to hear."

The festival also boasts some other big names, most notably Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown and Coco Montoya. At 73 years of age, Brown can still play almost any stringed instrument he picks up. A bluesman who can out-fiddle a team of Tennesseeans, a jazzman who's never looked down his nose at R&B, the Louisiana-born, Texas-bred musician is a genuine exponent of Creole music. Roots rocker Montoya spent a decade-long stint with John Mayall's Bluesbreakers, a move that cemented his rocking reputation.

The rest of a crowded lineup includes Little Feat, Johnny Copeland, Charlie Musselwhite and the Iguanas on Saturday, and Robben Ford, Jimmy Thackery and Tommy Castro on Sunday.

The Santa Cruz Blues Festival takes place Saturday and Sunday at Aptos Village Park. Tickets cost $23 for one day or $33 for two days, in advance. For more info, call 479-9814.

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From the May 22-28, 1997 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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