CD Review: Various Artists, Alligator Records: 35X35

In two senses, it’s pretty hard to believe that Alligator Records, the formerly upstart blues label out of Chicago, has been around for 35 years.

First, Alligator seems – at least to a fortysomething like myself – to have always been with us. What, only 35? Not as old as the blues itself? Not…forever?

And second, it’s remarkable when any independent label survives this long, no matter what its mission. Alligator has done it with a two-pronged strategy: scout and sign new talent, while also picking up seasoned, even legendary artists who, for reasons ranging from fickle audiences to personal demons, have fallen out of the spotlight (at least in the US, the birthplace of the blues) and are due for comebacks.

To celebrate the longevity and devotion that have made Alligator the world’s most successful modern blues label, it has just put out a two-CD collection spotlighting its three and a half decades of releasing some of the best blues (and, occasionally, blues-ish) music money can buy. Founder Bruce Iglauer and his team selected one track from each of 35 artists’ first releases for the label, ranging from Hound Dog Taylor’s Howlin’ Wolf-style, elemental electric blues to Son Seals’s minor-key funked-up variety; from Koko Taylor’s 1975 comeback to Charlie Musselwhite’s in 1990; from Professor Longhair’s last recording in 1980 to the teenage Shemekia Copeland’s first in 1998.

Alligator seems to have been along for almost every musical journey the blues has taken contemporary fans. From Buddy Guy and James Cotton to Johnny Winter and Lonnie Mack, the list of world-famous artists who have recorded for the label goes on and on. It released Corey Harris when he was starting out as a country-blues revivalist, Elvin Bishop when he returned to his blues roots, and Mavis Staples when she sought to bring her soulful gospel message to the public after 9/11. Guitar heroes, fiery belters, harmonica masters, and even C. J. Chenier’s Zydeco have found a home on Alligator, and we’re all the better for it.

You’d be hard put to find a better companion for the second semester of your Blues 101 survey course, should you happen to be teaching one. (You’d need to go elsewhere for the early country styles and other traditional forms with which the blues began.) Alligator has wisely stuck a single-CD price on this chronologically ordered two-disc set, making it but a small investment for those (like most of us) whose music budget makes us hesitate to buy a compilation rather than seeking out just those artists we already know we like the very best. There’s not a dud on here; in spite of the subgenre-hopping, it’s a pleasurable listen straight through. Pick it up if you enjoy but are only glancingly familiar with the blues, or get it for a youngster you know – you might just light a fire under someone that won’t ever be put out.