John Lee Hooker

Keith Moerer reviews "Don't Look Back" by John Lee Hooker.

Published April 11, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

just shy of 80, John Lee Hooker is old enough to remember the blues as devil's music but still vital enough to pose for TV commercials. You can't blame Hooker for cashing in. After surviving decades of unpaid royalties, he deserves his Pepsi residuals more than Cindy Crawford. Unfortunately, "Don't Look Back" represents a less obvious but riskier bargain. By letting Van Morrison produce his album, Hooker is at the mercy of an ego more outsized than his own.

Hooker, of course, is no model of musical purity. As one of the most widely recorded blues men, he's performed with virtually every rock musician who's offered sycophantic praise and the promise of a decent advance. His bestselling album to date was "The Healer," a 1990 love fest featuring Carlos Santana, Robert Cray and Bonnie Raitt. For my money, it's hard to improve on Hooker himself, all gruff baritone and spastic guitar. Alone, Hooker is a master of 12-bar blues, not to mention 11-bar, 14-bar and 17-bar blues.

On "Don't Look Back," Morrison pairs Hooker with a band that includes urbane blues pianist Charles Brown; Brown's guitarist and bassist, Danny Caron and Ruth Davies; and two members of Robert Cray's group, keyboardist Jimmy Pugh and drummer Kevin Hayes -- all fine musicians, but often they seem in service to the wrong master. Among the four duets Hooker sings with Morrison is a cover of "The Healing Game," which also happens to be the title track of Morrison's new album. On this song and "Don't Look Back," Hooker mimics Van the Man's phrasing and settles into lazy, elongated grooves that are pure Morrison. Even when Hooker doesn't sound like his producer's guest, he mostly plays to the strengths of others: "Blues Before Sunrise" and "Travelin' Blues" are the sort of sophisticated supper-club blues that Hooker doesn't sing as well as muzzled pianist Brown.

Hooker sounds truest to himself on the one song
Morrison didn't produce -- a rambunctious remake
of Hooker's 1956 hit "Dimples," backed by Los
Lobos and harmonica player Juke Logan. Rather
than fight for glory, they serve this classic
one-chord boogie like an anonymous but highly
sympathetic studio band. The effect is thrilling
because it's one of the few times Hooker is
allowed to be the undisputed star on his own

By Keith Moerer

Keith Moerer is a regular contributor to Salon.

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