John Lee Hooker and Willie Dixon are the last of a generation of giants that plugged Mississippi’s Delta blues into urban America. Dixon went to Chicago and became a mainstay at Chess Records, where he played bass, produced, arranged and wrote songs for electrified Delta wailers such as Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, who, like Hooker, had migrated to the Windy City from rural Mississippi. Hooker, who has just turned seventy-four, left Mississippi and eventually made his way to Detroit nightclubs so noisy that his only recourse was to strum his open tuned guitar with such ferocity as to put an indelible stamp on rock & roll. Blame it on the boogie and you’re blaming it on John Lee Hooker.
Mr. Lucky refines the strategy of The Healer, from 1989, which paired Hooker with a variety of rootsy rockers who had been touched by his rhythmic mojo. While there’s nothing here quite as stunning as Hooker’s saucy, Grammy-winning duet with Bonnie Raitt on “I’m in the Mood,” Mr. Lucky is all around a sharper fit. The players on this outing aren’t rock stars paying tribute to a legend, but superb sidemen for a great bluesman.
Mr. Lucky offers a well-rounded portrait of the artist, but as Hooker’s bullhorn bark has lost a bit of its bite, that means the collection really rips on the ripe, low-key blues, the aspect of Hooker’s work that inspired Bruce Springsteen and U2. Van Morrison, himself a central influence on those two rock institutions, pays his own propers to Hooker by joining him for a duet on a masterful “I Cover the Waterfront”; the two men’s voices shift like the endless sea that separates Clarksdale, Mississippi, from Belfast, Ireland, and lonely men from the women who matter most.
The best boogie, ironically, features not a guitar but a piano pumped by Chuck Berry’s own Johnnie Johnson, whose work on “I Want to Hug You” reflects Hooker’s affinity for vintage rhythm & blues. By contrast, Hooker never really gets a handle on the muscular shuffle of the Robert Cray Band’s rendering of the title tune or on Carlos Santana’s tastefully modern treatment of “Stripped Me Naked.” Guitarists Keith Richards and Johnny Winter inspire grittier, and more successful, collaborations on, respectively, “Crawlin’ Kingsnake” and “Susie.”
In the end, the true peaks on the album bring it all back home. “This Is Hip,” with its gospel voices and Ry Cooder’s sanctified slide guitar, bears a touch of the church, while “Highway 13” and “Father Was a Jockey” are flat-out Delta blues with splendid accompaniment by guitarist John Hammond. As Hooker moves musically from the city back to the Delta on Mr. Lucky, he travels a circle that in his rare hands remains truly unbroken.