This four-disc box from London's JSP Records collects an astounding 100 songs recorded by John Lee Hooker in Detroit from the years 1948 to 1952, including his first two sides ever, the signature tunes "Boogie Chillen" and "Sally Mae." Most of the tracks here are done solo, with Hooker's ever-present foot-stomping, although a few feature other musicians on loose-limbed blues boogies. Since Hooker never significantly altered his style during his long career, these first recordings set the stage for all that came after, and he arguably never sounded fresher or better. Four discs worth of this throwback Mississippi bluesman will be severe overkill for casual listeners, but diehard Hooker fans will find this box set absolutely essential.
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One of his finest '90s recordings, Chill Out balances the guitar-glitz of Carlos Santana's guest shot on the karmic title cut with a handful of profoundly deep Hooker solo performances. Among those are new versions of his standards "Tupelo" and "Annie Mae," and the soulful "If You've Never Been in Love," where expert slide-man Roy Rogers provides subtle accompaniment to Hooker's spontaneous storytelling. The band numbers that bookend the album are weak, relying on Hooker's strong vocal presence to overcome sketchy writing. Van Morrison, pianist Charles Brown, and M.G.'s leader Booker T. Jones also lend a hand. But Hooker doesn't need anybody's help to get to the passionate heart of his blues. One last note: Anton Corbijn's CD-booklet photographs of ol' Johnny Lee are terrific.