Former Howlin’ Wolf players Tail Dragger, Henry Gray join star-studded tribute to the Wolf on Howlin’ at Greaseland

For longtime bluesmen Henry Gray and Tail Dragger, the late, great Chester Burnett — a.k.a. Howlin’ Wolf — didn’t just serve as an inspiration. For them, he was a band leader and mentor, and the inclusion of these now senior statesmen of the blues is just one of the things that helps to make Howlin’ at Greaseland (West Tone Records) such a special tribute to this true giant of the genre, along with contributions from names like harmonica player Rick Estrin, multi-instrumentalist (and project recorder) Kid Andersen, horn man Terry Hanck, and keyboardist Jim Pugh (Robert Cray Band), among others.

While the album probably didn’t need additional star power beyond the strong vocals delivered by Alabama Mike, John Blues Boyd, Lee Donald, Aki Kumar, and Hanck, combined with the sharp playing of the rotating backing band that Andersen assembled at his San Jose, California, Greaseland Studios for the recording, the presence of Gray and Tail Dragger on almost a handful of tracks does help to add a nice extra bit of authenticity and raise an already commendable project to an even higher level.

Tail Dragger (front) & Gray at 2012 show

Kicking things off with a greasy “Meet Me in the Bottom” that features raw, gritty vocals from Alabama Mike, the band then switches to the smoother voice of John Blues Boyd for a swaying “Smokestack Lightnin'”, with Estrin blowing harmonica on both. Hanck takes over on vocals for a zippy “Howlin’ for My Darling”, also bringing along his saxophone, before we get to the first of the numbers from the Wolf protégés in Tail Dragger’s gruff “I’m Leaving You” that features Aki Kumar on harmonica, with Kumar expanding his responsibilities on the next track to include some Paul Butterfield-ish vocals to accompany Gray’s singing and piano on a slow-shuffling “Worried Life Blues” that finds Chris James and Patrick Rynn on guitar and bass, respectively.

It’s back to Boyd — with Estrin returning on harmonica — for “Riding in the Moonlight”, followed by a creeping “Forty Four” that features bleating vocals from Lee Donald while Andersen — previously contributing on guitar or bass — takes a turn on piano.

Gray at 2012 show

Tail Dragger steps back in for a brusque “Don’t Trust No Woman”, one of a half dozen songs that features Pugh on piano, who then is replaced on the ivories by Gray for a stripped-down “Little Red Rooster” on which he is joined only by Andersen on guitar, with the 92-year-old Gray sharing at the conclusion of the song that it was one he recorded with Wolf just before the bluesman died, one of several short recollections of Wolf offered by the musicians between songs, including Wolf’s appearance on American Bandstand, how Hanck’s dad once booked Wolf for a mall show, and why Wolf gave Tail Dragger his nickname.

The album closes all too soon with a powerful, almost big band-ish “Spoonful” again featuring Boyd on vocals, Andersen on guitar along with Rockin’ Johnny Burgin, Estrin on harmonica, and Pugh on piano, leaving the listener hoping that plans have already been made to record a second volume while Gray and Tail Dragger are still on this earth.

Together, it makes for a fulfilling, well-crafted project that Wolf himself would’ve loved, and that blues fans and critics are sure to love also!

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