Take pure John Lee Hooker, add strong doses of Santana, Bonnie Raitt, Robert Cray, Canned Heat, Los Lobos and George Thorogood (all of whom appear on The Healer), and what do you get? Brilliant, 100-proof blues, that’s what. One of the archetypal postwar Delta-born urban bluesmen, John Lee Hooker has been dispensing his own brand of corrosive blues for more than forty years, influencing the Rolling Stones, the Animals, Bob Dylan, the Doors, Van Morrison and countless others. Possessed of a harsh, primal power, his inimitable deep, dark vocals evoke sex, violence, defiant joy and doomed love in harmonically simple songs driven by rhythmic electric guitar and the clanging, open-tuned chords and foot tapping characteristic of country blues.
On The Healer, Hooker has concocted big, bad medicine. The opening title cut, performed with Santana, is sheer spirit-invoking incantation. Then Hooker enters the realm of the senses, covering his 1951 million seller “I’m in the Mood” in a slow bump-and-grind duet with Bonnie Raitt. As John Lee states his need, Raitt, at her seductive best, sidles up to and curls around each phrase in a sassy moan and response. Song after song lands its ideal groove as Hooker guides his players through an earthy blues cycle that chronicles the rites of carnal knowledge — from the don’t-do-me-wrong pleas of “Baby Lee,” spiked with Cray’s trenchant guitar, to the somber, contemptuous stomp of “Sally Mae,” whammied with Thorogood’s slash ‘n’ trash slide.
Throughout, Hooker’s mellowed-with-age growl reverberates, but his most powerful performances strip bare his soul in slow tombstone blues with stark accompaniment. Tormented by a cheating woman, he sways in sorrowful forgiveness to doomsday bass and Charlie Mussel-white’s wailing blues harp (“That’s Alright”) and rocks with raw despair to dissonant National Steel chords (“Rockin’ Chair”) before he can whisper the record’s last, hushed lesson — there “ain’t no substitute for love.”
Producer-guitarist Roy Rogers of the Delta Rhythm Kings faithfully captures the intimate banter and live-in-the-barroom, Fender-tube-amp quality of authentic blues. But the spirit that animates this album is the ageless voice of John Lee Hooker and his boogie-man blues. He has conjured up a renewed world blues with the canniness of the hoodoo healers and root doctors who first gave birth to the Delta blues.