by Perry Meisel
The way Albert Collins tore up the Other End last Tuesday night, you'd figure the rugged blues modernist from Texas had all but forgotten the days he drove a truck in Houston for $1.13 an hour. But even though Collins has one of the most formidable underground reputations of any Texas bluesman, he's thinking about getting a truck again as we sit in the dressing room after the gig. At 46, an anxious Collins is talking security as well as blues. Underground reputations, after all, can make you immortal a little too fast, and Collins's career has been as mercurial as the explosive and unpredictable guitar that's made him a gunslinging legend. Back in the '60s, Collins released a series of hit-single instrumentals (songs like "Frosty," "Sno-Cone," "Don't Love Your Cool," and more) that codified his icy, burning sound. In 1968, he moved to L.A. so Canned Heat's Bob Hite could produce and book him, but by 1972 the LPs had stopped even if the gigs did not.
Not that material fluctuations have done anything to erode Collins's passion as a musician. The only real difference between the old hits and his return to recording with the recent Ice Pickin' (on Bruce Iglauer's excellent Chicago Blues label, Alligator) is simply the difference a decade has made in standard recording equipment. Collins is still the same bone-crusher at 46 that he was at 35, a blistering barber of soul with an ax for a razor. And, for the first time on disc, Ice Pickin' gives us Collins the singer, too, a cool and sardonic character whose antic angst used to be reserved for gigs alone.
Although there's nothing especially new about Collins's musical ideas (no riff that's associated with his name like the Albert King shock-stutter, no exact guitar tone like the special sweet one we associate with B.B.), there's a nervy rasp to his playing and singing that makes even Buddy Guy sound staid. The groaning, hissing, buzzing universe on which Collins's amp is a metaphorical window is no Delta dawn or brooding Mississippi, but a raw oilscape of technological power controlled by the bluesman as engineer. Texas also means the feel of rhythm and blues bound rather strictly to the 12-bar grid, with the characteristic groove more a funky thing than the regulation shuffle or slow blues. But no matter the groove, Collins's phrasing is in all cases the exaggerated stutter, the way he falls over backward in that blurting, apparently uncontrolled fashion that gets shaped and stylized in Cornell Dupree or the late King Curtis (both Texans from Fort Worth and both close to Collins in age as well).
That phraseological propensity has a history that suggests in miniature the network of influences at work in the Texas groove as a whole. A principal clue is that Collins plays with his fingers instead of with a pick, phrasing in an almost country style even though his head is full of a swinging rhythm section underneath. The yield of the conflict is the churning funk groove itself, a kind of compromise-formation between country and swing like his hottest new song, "Honey, Hush," the opener on Ice Pickin' and the serene eye of the storm at last week's gig.
The swinging imperatives in Collins's sound can be traced back to the guy usually credited as Collins's principal precursor, the legendary but largely forgotten Texas guitarist Gatemouth Brown. Gatemouth has cowboy airs, and his jumping guitar smokes halfway between Django and the Chuck Berry who had yet to arrive on the scene. Collins's groove is thus a rhythmic structure that can be felt in more than one way. Jazzies can conjure swing riffs when they listen to him; funkophiles can hear Memphis horns; rockers can hear Berry, too, especially when Collins, a la Gatemouth, leans on the fat end of his strings and gets the punctuated drone stylized these days by the Ramones.
To mention the Ramones is not entirely whimsical, since an intentional minimalism seems the only explanation for the rawness of a latter-day bluesman like Collins compared to the relative sophistication of the earlier Gatemouth. For if Collins should be read against the tradition of Texas and the territory jazz bands, what the comparison produces is the recognition that orthodox blues has experienced an ironic kind of chastening or self-curtailment over the years. How else can you explain why Texan latecomers like Collins, King Curtis, or even the Austin rockers are all rawer or simpler than the Bob Wills, the Ben Websters, the Gatemouths? Instead of imperial expansion, development seems to mean contraction and economizing, even though its secret victory is the amalgamation of a series of rhythmic styles in a single-pressured groove.
Or is that called rock and roll?
Originally published in The Village Voice, May 7, 1979