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Take Another Listen to That Blues Guitar

*** 1/2 VARIOUS ARTISTS, "Chess Blues Guitar," MCA/Chess

January 25, 1998|Robert Hilburn

It's easy to be suspicious of yet another multi-disc retrospective from the legendary Chess Records--especially at a time when record companies seem to be flooding us with filler-heavy two-disc sets that would be far more attractive as one-disc albums.

But this blues package will likely delight you on two levels.

Not only do a third of the tracks appear on CD for the first time, but the focus on guitar puts the songs in a new context that is both appealing and instructive. Though guitar was always a fundamental element in the records released by Chess, the songwriting, vocals and other elements sometimes attracted most of our attention.

Here, however, many of the guitar intros alone will make you marvel--from the sensual slide work on Robert Nighthawk's "Anna Lee" to the exclamatory, film noir-ish runs on Joe Hill Louis' "When I Am Gone." And it's not just the headliners (also including Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry) who are saluted. One of the premier moments is Hubert Sumlin's playful and elastic guitar work on Howlin' Wolf's "Hidden Charms"--a performance that may well define the record better than Wolf's vocal itself.

By the end of the 130-minute collection, you are grateful that producer Andy McKaie didn't limit "Chess Blues Guitar" to a single disc.

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Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent).

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* Excerpts from these albums and other recent releases are available on The Times' World Wide Web site. Point your browser to: http://www.latimes.com/soundclips

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