ROBERT PETE WILLIAMS Louisiana Blues (4 Men With Beards)
“Guitar, bottleneck guitar & singing”, promises the sleeve, and the music it contains is just as austere as that description implies. Born into a family of sharecroppers, Williams was a near-illiterate whose discovery by ethnomusicologists whilst serving life for a murder he claimed was self-defence in Louisville State Penitentiary led to his early release on “servitude parole”, a form of licensed slavery, near enough, and his gradual assimilation of a musical career.
Williams is perhaps most famous outside blues circles for Captain Beefheart’s cover of “Grown So Ugly” on his debut album “Safe As Milk”. It’s not difficult to detect parallels between the two men’s music when comparing the Captain’s topsy-turvy take on rhythm and blues with Williams’ spidery, fragmentary fingerpicking. In fact, his original of “Ugly” makes Beefheart’s version sound almost disciplined, if you can believe that. Given that the blues is one of music’s more traditional, regimented forms, it’s baffling to hear it sound as distended as it does in Williams’ hands, melodies magnified until they resemble a blurred series of twists and turns, their geography impossible to grasp, straggly knots of sound with no clear beginning or end. Aside from the footstomping timekeeping during “Somebody Help Poor Me” and the inevitable “Woke up this morning” opening to “Freight-Train Blues”, there’s almost nothing regular about this record.
4 Men With Beards’ reissue is nicely presented, with a pasted-over thick cardboard sleeve and a booklet mostly devoted to dust-dry analysis of Williams’ technique. The pressing quality doesn’t detract noticeably from appreciation of the music, but this is by no stretch of the imagination a high fidelity recording.