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Odyssey of a Bluesman

Luther Allison
Blue Streak: Expatriate guitarist Luther Allison grimaces for his art.

After 20 years in France, guitarist Luther Allison comes back to the home of the blues

Bt 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 to Europe, eventually settling in France. Now, after almost two decades, the expatriate, one of the headliners at 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 U.S. Subsequent U.S. barnstorming tours--most notably 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. 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. "I'm Back," the album's concluding track, sounds like peak-period James Brown propelled by an Allman Brothers­like guitar riff.

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.

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.

Coco Montoya, a roots rocker of considerable talent, probably would have wound up frittering away his best licks in some dinosaur-rock band had it not been for John Mayall, but a decade-long stint with Mayall's Bluesbreakers turned Montoya in another direction.

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 May 24­25 at Aptos Village Park. Tickets are $23 for one day or $33 for two days, in advance. (408/479-9814)

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From the May 22-28, 1997 issue of Metro

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