February 2003

Alvin Youngblood Hart - Down in the Alley
Memphis International Records DOT 0203
Released: 2002

by John Crossett

Musical Performance ****
Recording Quality ***
Overall Enjoyment ****

Audiophiles take note: this disc is recorded in good old-fashioned mono. Get over it!

There, now that we have that little issue out of the way, we can move on to more important things, such as just how good Down in the Alley really is. It seems that there is a disturbing tendency today to write off the young guns of the blues as unable to understand what the blues are all about. Discs such as this one go a long way toward negating that idea. Alvin Youngblood Hart and brand-new blues label Memphis International Records have created a recording that will cause one to remember the roots of the genre. There is a authentic, basic feeling to this CD that you just don’t hear in today's blues recordings. The sound here is similar to the tracks Hart recorded with Maria Muldaur on her album, Richland Women Blues. That album of Muldaur's blues vocals backed by sparse instrumentation may well have provided some of the inspiration for Down in the Alley.

Having listened and learned from a diverse group of influences, from his Mississippi grandparents through Charlie Patton and B.B. King, all the way to Jimi Hendrix and The Rolling Stones, Hart has assumed a style that, while reflecting them all, is still his own. His past albums give ample testimony to this, running the gamut, as they do, from blues-tinged folk songs (1996’s debut Big Mama’s Door) to blues-rock (2000’s Start with the Soul). Here, though, Hart once again shows his determination to follow his own muse by recording his fourth album (for his fourth different label!) and using that opportunity to return to the very roots of the blues.

The sounds of the past infuse the music laid down on Down in the Alley. First, Hart records songs written by the genre's founding fathers -- Sun House, Leadbelly, Sleepy John Estes, Skip James, and Charlie Patton -- together with a number of traditional folk/blues tunes. Second, by accompanying himself on guitar, banjo, or mandolin, Hart has recorded a modern album that sounds as though it could easily have come from the vaults of Alan Lomax. There’s a rawness to Down in the Alley that reaches out and grabs you, giving you a glimpse of the past and how hard life was when these songs were initially written. Further, Hart sings these songs with all that passion laid bare. Listening to this disc you can almost feel the sun beating down, the sweat dripping off your brow as you toil endlessly in the fields.

Now, once we get past the mono thing, we come to how good (or bad) a recording Down in the Alley is. Since Memphis International is a new label, they probably don’t have a ton of money to throw at session time; surprisingly, sometimes that "problem" results in better-sounding recordings than many of the slick, over-produced albums we hear today. Down in the Alley was recorded in a mere three days. There is little in the way of space presented here -- it's mono, remember -- so it loses points for that. However, the realness of the instrumentation and vocals will come as a pleasant surprise. It’s easy to hear the differing sonic signatures of all the different instruments Hart uses. (Hart enjoys restoring instruments from the early part of the 20th century as a hobby, and he may very well be using some of those restored instruments on this recording.)

As audiophiles, we may have a tendency to overlook mono recordings, especially modern ones, as unworthy of our attentions. I say this outlook is pure folly. Following this course will cut you off from much worthwhile music. Down in the Alley is very much a worthwhile disc. It brings the past alive, and offers hope that the blues will continue on course, bringing comfort and enjoyment for generations to come.