Album Review

Robert Pete Williams - Self-Titled

Robert Pete Williams - self-titled

He came from the country and his name was Williams. He performed in a cowboy hat, sang about railroads and lost love and jails -- and emerged as a professional performer after being released from the pen, having served time for killing a man, which he said was in self-defense. Robert Pete Williams was, of course, a blues singer.

To be more precise, while he was not a country music performer, many in blues had doubts that this guy was exactly a blues singer and guitar master either -- even after Williams recorded several idiosyncratic albums in the '60s and (this one, for instance) the early '70s, played some blues festivals, and toured with Mississippi Fred McDowell. Whenever the rules got written about what blues would be, Robert Pete Williams did not receive the memo. At the very least, he lost it in his files somewhere. Twelve bars may have been where he spent too many evenings before his death in 1980, but it wasn't how he structured a song.

Williams brings up standard-issue classics such as "Matchbox" or "That's All Right Mama" or "Dust My Broom" -- for about a line, before wandering off into notions, acoustic and electric 12-string bottleneck guitar runs, rhythms and minor-key turns of his own devising. Sometimes it sounds like brilliant and intense improvisation, uninfluenced by any predecessor or region; sometimes it sounds like maybe he just, well -- forgot where he started out.

The result is a unique contribution some have seen as a throwback to unstructured proto-blues from the 19th century, others as a predecessor of the 21st century torn-up post-blues snippet work of a Jimi Hendrix or Captain Beefheart or Jon Spencer. Not for nothing is it those sly backers of unexpected, modern rhythmic blues, Fat Possum, who have reclaimed this obscure 30-year-old collection. There are, incidentally, songs allegedly about the impact of Vietnam, sex, and the death of Slim Harpo. Unique and memorable.