Big Bill Broonzy

Record review

Reissues & Box Sets

Big Bill Broonzy

Amsterdam Live Concerts 1953 (Munich)

"You can't get there without going through Big Bill." This Taj Mahal-ascribed quote illustrates Broonzy's influence on African-American music last century, and – thanks to these unvaulted concerts – into the future. One of 17 children born to parents who endured slavery, William Lee Conley Broonzy (1893-1958) went from itinerant laborer to international bluesman in his lifetime. Succumbing to cancer at his creative peak is the only reason his name isn't more widely known, because as these two CDs verify, the big man was a musical tour de force. Recorded with specialized equipment by a professional, the only thing more astonishing than the performance and sound quality is how such an amazing artifact remained under the radar for five decades. In two performances, Broonzy pulls from a 350-plus song catalog, including standards "Down by the Riverside" and "John Henry," as well as his astute social commentary "Black, Brown and White." Before greatly appreciative crowds, Broonzy also opines on musical genre nomenclature, teaching the blues, government ineptitude during catastrophic floods, and Holland's negative bigotry. Being an archival recording, a few song fragments, lost transitions, et cetera, appear, but the sheer gravity here – and Broonzy's powerfully heartfelt delivery and forceful guitar playing – more than compensate. Germane liner notes round out the package, full of photos of Broonzy with his Dutch wife and son, his adopted Chicago home, and his funeral with Studs Terkel and Muddy Waters as pallbearers. Amsterdam Live Concerts is one of the finest blues releases in recent, if not future, memory.

****

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