Album of the Day: Various Artists, “Ann Arbor Blues Festival 1969, Vol. 1 & 2”

In 1969, a group of enthusiastic college students at the University of Michigan organized North America’s first music festival dedicated to celebrating the blues in all its varied forms. Captured on a new reissue from Third Man Records, Ann Arbor Blues Festival 1969, Vol. 1 & 2 offers a snapshot of a moment in time when the giants of Black music converged at a Midwestern college campus and delivered stunning performances.

The album opens with some slick stage banter from Arkansas-born, traveling bluesman Roosevelt Sykes. He warns the crowd that his tune “Dirty Mother For You” could be construed as “suggestive” or “smutty” before launching into a raunchy piano-based boogie jam. Chicago Blues legend B.B. King lights up “I’ve Got A Mind To Give Up Living” with wild, distorted guitar solos. But it’s Big Mama Thornton’s arresting downtempo ballad “Ball And Chain” that brings down the house. The song would later gain popularity via a cover by Big Brother & the Holding Company, but Thornton’s version here is a killer. With its otherworldly guitar solo, weeping brass, and rapturous vocals, Thornton’s rendition becomes a hot, screaming revelation of pain and longing. 

Rounded out by performances from Muddy Waters, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Howlin’ Wolf, and more, the lineup reads like a who’s who of American popular music. By capturing these musicians in that moment, Ann Arbor Blues Festival 1969, Vol. 1 & 2 is an essential document of a dynamic, living history.

-John Morrison

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