BEST OF 2015: Don Wilcock’s Top 10 Blues Albums

Howard Fishman Band
Howard Fishman

By Don Wilcock
Photograph by Andrzej Pilarczyk

“Does it seem like the end of the world to you right now?”

Howard Fishman couldn’t believe that I, a man who was already an adult when Bob Dylan recorded The Basement Tapes, was still in the game as a music journalist almost 50 years later.

His Howard Fishman Quintet played a rare two-night stand at Saratoga’s Caffe Lena in October, presenting a marvelous show he calls “The Basement Tapes Project: The Music of Bob Dylan and the Band and the Old Weird America.” As a reference point, Fishman uses the recently released six-disc Basement Tapes CD collection Dylan made with the Band in 1967 as inspiration for music that’s actually as much his creation as it is Dylan’s oeuvre.

Fishman was serious when he asked me the question about whether I felt I was experiencing the end of the world right now. I had been interviewing him for a column to advance his Caffe Lena show. About half way through that interview I realized that he was asking me almost as many questions as I was asking him. He wanted to know how it felt to be in the game when Dylan began speaking to my generation about just who we were and how the world was changing when he began “blowing in the wind.”

New Year’s Eve has always been a time of reflection, looking back on how we handled what we did in the past year, learning from the experience and promising ourselves to do better. So, as 71-year-old music journalist I can say I don’t feel like this is the end of the world.

I was 21 when “Like a Rolling Stone” came out in 1965. Fishman doesn’t reveal his age, but I don’t think he was born yet. I told Fishman that Dylan directed the baby boomers and became a compass leading the way in how we thought about ourselves.

We really didn’t know who we were when we heard lyrics like “Blowing in the Wind,” and we all kind of said, “Yeah, yeah, that’s us. That’s who we are.” Until that point the only
anchor or point of reference for us was Elvis Presley, who came six or seven years before Dylan. He was about identifying young people as a separate market, whereas Dylan challenged us to become a whole different culture, a culture that changed the way all people, young and old, think about the world.

Dylan was telling us for the first time in history that as young people our view of the world not only counted as much as that of older generations, but that our views were even more important than theirs because we had the energy and the time to change the world and make things right. Was he right? Yes and no…

Michael Caine was on “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” this week, and at 81 he said he couldn’t figure out where the time went. At 71, I agree with him and find that most people my age – including artists I’ve interviewed like Jorma Kaukonen and Ray Wylie Hubbard – agree. My grandsons and younger people in the music business say they envy me for having seen Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin live. They can’t believe I’ve actually talked to Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker.

Many say flatfooted that the music was better then. As good as it was, I don’t think so. Time causes cream to rise to the top and gives us all selective memory. Today, there is more music and technology that allows all of us easier access to everything. The best of it today is better than the worst of 1965, and the worst of today is worse than 1965.

When I began reviewing music in 1969, I did it to maintain my sanity. My country had ordered me to serve in Vietnam, and I told myself if I was going to put my life on the line, I at least wanted to be doing something I enjoyed and that would make the lives of those I was writing for a little bit more tolerable.

Somehow, I managed to talk the Army into letting me review underground music for the most above ground newspaper in the world, the Army Reporter. The job gave me access to complementary copies of all the best releases of the day sent to me by the record labels. At the time, that was a very privileged position to be in. Today, everyone has that privilege literally in the palm of their hands. The game is to find the cream in the vast vat of entertainment alternatives.

Since you’re reading this on, you’re likely an active voyager willing to search for the good stuff. One cannot be passive today in the search for the best in entertainment. Couch potatoes in the entertainment world drown in a tsunami of crap. You need to find the “gate keepers” to goodness, be open to new ideas and entertainment that stretch you and take you outside of your comfort zone. With that in mind, I offer up for your consideration my 10 best blues CDs of the year. Call me a gate keeper. I’ve worked in the blues arena for almost half a century. I’ve sifted through the crap. And this is the good stuff:

1. Otis Taylor: Hey Joe Opus Red Meat (Trance Blues Festival Records)

2. Beth Hart: Better Than Home (Provogue)

3. Shemekia Copeland: Outskirts of Town (Alligator)

4. Ted Drozdowski’s Scissormen: Love & Life (Dolly Sez Woof Recordings)

5. Bettye LaVette: Worthy (Cherry Red Records)

6. Harrison Kennedy: This Is From Here (Electro Fi)

7. Wee Willie Walker: If Nothing Ever Changes (Little Village Foundation)

8. Buddy Guy: Born to Play Guitar (RCA Silvertone)

9. Various artists: Muddy Waters 100 (Raisin’ Music Records)

10. Billy Price/Otis Clay: This Time for Real (Vizztone)

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