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Henry Townsend – The Real St. Louis BluesHenry Townsend – The Real St. Louis Blues
by Jeff Konkel

I don’t know whether Henry Townsend has ever made a bad record. With a recording career stretching back nearly 80 years, there’s a good chance he’s cut a clunker or two. But if he has, I haven’t heard it.

For that reason, reviewing a disc by the patriarch of St. Louis blues can seem like an exercise in separating the great from the merely very good. Nevertheless, there’s something special about The Real St. Louis Blues, a collection of Townsend recordings from 1979 now available through Arcola Records.

There are almost certainly better Townsend discs, but there are few as varied or as joyfully informal as this one. Recorded by Bob West over the course of a couple of days, the 17 tracks on this disc see Townsend stretching out on guitar, piano and even harpsichord!

One session saw Henry snapping the strings on both acoustic guitar and his electric Flying V. Townsend tends to sound relaxed in any setting, but on these tracks, recorded in the bluesman’s home in St. Louis, he sounds particularly comfortable. On a few numbers, he gets a little vocal support from his parakeet who chirps along in the background. As with most Townsend discs, this one sees him alternating between songs with set lyrics and those with significant improvisation.

On the piano tracks, Townsend sounds like a kid let loose in a candy store. In fact, that analogy is not far off. At the time of these recordings, Townsend’s own piano was badly out of tune, so producer West managed to secure recording time at a local piano shop in the morning hours before the store opened. Townsend tried out a variety of pianos throughout the session, sometimes pounding away on an upright, sometimes caressing the keys of a baby grand. The different tonal qualities of the instruments only add to the diversity of the proceedings.

For the disc’s final track, West included a recording from the tail end of this second recording session. On their way out of the piano store, Townsend noticed a harpsichord hanging on a wall. The store manager allowed the blues great to try his hand at playing the unusual instrument. Its inclusion on The Real St. Louis Blues only adds to the slightly surreal quality of this intimate, playful CD.

The track listing:

1. can't you see*
2. mercy
3. can't help myself*
4. so long, so long*
5. pleasin myself
6. my babe
7. crying won't make me star*
8. sad story
9. i've got to go
10. long ago
11. bye bye st. louis
12. room and board*
13. what's on your mind?
14. let her go
15. i regret*
16. every once in a while
17. going back home*

* Jeff’s favorites
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