Hightone has been a force in roots music since '83, and this set celebrates their already-impressive legacy with 79 tracks and 16 videos! Videos by Dave Alvin, Joe Ely, Rosie Flores, Lonesome Strangers and more join Phone Booth Robert Cray; Tore Up Otis Rush; Going down South R.L. Burnside; California Sun Dick Dale; American Music Blasters; Ramblin' Fever Billy Joe Shaver; Dallas Jimmie Dale Gilmore; cuts by Ramblin' Jack Elliott with John Prine and Tom Waits an amazing (and nicely priced for all this) set!
With few exceptions, these are tough times for artists who perform American roots music. It was much the same in the early '80s, when the feisty, Oakland-based Hightone Records coalesced around pals Bruce Bromberg and Larry Sloven. Under their stewardship, Hightone championed blues, country, and folk musicians and singer-songwriters and aided in the birth of the Americana movement--which in turn yielded a radio format and magazines like No Depression. These 79 songs on four CDs and a DVD of music videos are a compendium of Hightone's accomplishments and, in many cases, the footprints of creative giants within those genres. Each disc is defined by style. The blues roster includes Robert Cray's breakthrough hit "Smokin' Gun," which helped launch the genre's '80s revival, as well as performances by Delta heroes Pinetop Perkins and Johnny Shines, Chicago legend Otis Rush, and such potent contemporary players as Kim Wilson, Joe Louis Walker, and R.L. Burnside. The country CD also gets high marks, with underground giants Gary Stewart, Buddy Miller, Big Sandy, and Dale Watson kicking up dust. With Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Tom Russell, Dave Alvin, Chris Smither, and Dylan influence Ramblin' Jack Elliott paired with Tom Waits on the folk/singer-songwriter disc, it also offers plenty of good listening. Hightone's rock history comes up short overall, with fairly pedantic playing and writing from most of its signings. The strongest exceptions are Joe Ely, the Blasters, and former Blasters songwriter-guitarist Alvin, who was Hightone's most diverse and wide-ranging talent before leaving recently for Yep Roc. The disc of videos is a blast. They're either live affairs by the likes of Alvin and Stewart or low-budget studio shoots from the days when the medium was innocent. There's also a lavish, colorful 123-page book featuring a well-written history of the label, a foreword by Alvin, and a story for every song in this often-delightful set. --Ted Drozdowski