“I was just a country boy, glad to get some sounds on wax.” ~ Howlin’ Wolf
Only a handful of the classic artists whose spirit helped set the foundation for the Blues, or a rare few of those who have boldly followed, had the raw intensity of Chester Arthur Burnett, better known as Howlin’ Wolf. That is a major factor for his name being mentioned as a major influence by so many rock and roll and blues artists over the past half a century. Omar Kent Dykes, a gifted singer, guitarist, and songwriter, is one such artist who holds Howlin’ Wolf in the highest regard. Dykes has assembled some like-minded musicians and friends from the thriving Austin, Texas music scene to help him pay tribute on his new release on the Provogue label entitled Runnin’ with the Wolf.
Dykes was born in McComb, Mississippi which also was the birthplace of another fine singer, songwriter and guitarist who went by the moniker of Bo Diddley. For more than three decades, along with his group Omar and the Howlers, Dykes has been pursuing his hybrid approach to blues music that entails brilliantly blending Mississippi and Texas blues styles with a shot of rock and roll with an unwavering doggedness. Dyke’s vocal style is dead right perfect for this project; deep and well-aged like a sturdy oak whiskey barrel. Bring together a pinch of southern drawl along with a smattering of grizzly bear growl, a tad of super-fine sandpaper grit, and a heaping helping of gutsy attitude and the end result is a distinctive blues voice supreme. Also pretty near perfect is the song selections by Dykes. In the liner notes he attests that “there is such a wealth of great material that I had a hard time deciding which songs to record. I finally chose several of my favorites, along with a few more obscure songs that spoke to me.”
The album’s opener and title track, “Runnin’ with the Wolf”, is an eye-popping, name-dropping ode that somehow squeezes enough Wolf classic song titles into the lyrics to make your head spin. A great dedicated homage to Wolf, it is the only Dykes original composition to stand alongside fourteen Wolf timeless classics, all written either by Wolf or his chief musical confederate, the celebrated and proficient blues songwriter Willie Dixon. Ted Roddy provides a locomotive harmonica accompaniment to Dykes’ enthused vocal with the glue that holds it all together being a chorus howling hook of “Ah-oooooooh, I’m runnin’ with the wolf.”
“Killing Floor” is one of Howlin’ Wolf’s best known masterpieces. A bouncy 12-bar blues song that when released as a single in 1964 by Chess Records featured an unforgettable guitar lead by Hubert Sumlin with acoustic guitar backing by Buddy Guy. Add to that a larger-than-life Wolf vocal and you get the definite version of the song, regardless of whoever would later attempt to improve on it. Jimi Hendrix on many occasions used the song as a rave-up to open his live set, albeit with an even faster tempo. The Electric Flag, with Michael Bloomfield on guitar, recorded a version to lead off their Long Time Comin’ album in 1967. The song was also included on the deluxe version of The Howlin’ Wolf London Sessions with Eric Clapton taking the Hubert Sumlin lead on that occasion, but even Eric himself differs to the original as being the real deal. On his “Killing Floor” interpretation Omar handles the guitar quite admirably, and the rhythm section of Ronnie James on bass and Mike Buck on drums flat out hit it hard and heavy. It proves to be one hell of a good head bobbin’, booty-shakin’, bone-rattlin’ pleasure. Omar’s snarling vocal bleeds brawny authenticity and upright integrity.
Written by Willie Dixon and recorded by Howlin’ Wolf in 1961, “Little Red Rooster” is a true blues standard, and a nice change of pace. The tune also has been covered by many artists, including a great up-tempo version by The Rolling Stones that hit number one in England; but once again, it is hard to stand up alongside Wolf’s Chess label version. Omar genuinely does the song justice, with his cadence falling between the Stones’ lively swagger and Wolf’s leisurely pulse rendering. Each listen to Omar’s translation uncovers buried nuances that enchant. The rhythm section grooves keeping time like a steady rocking chair and Omar’s guitar burns with a great fervor. Dyke’s sweet growling vocal is exceedingly enticing, and the guitar’s rooster crow/cluck is simply divine.
“Although Willie Dixon wrote hits for Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williams and Little Walter, he had a special understanding of Howlin’ Wolf’s style and approach to music. Their collaborative work was a perfect union of creative talent.” ~ Omar Dykes
Dykes clearly has a ball singing “she’s hot like red pepper, sweet like cherry wine, I’m so glad she love me, love me all the time” on “Howlin’ For My Baby”, a co-write by Dixon and Burnett. You can feel the overt amusement Omar expounds with every “hoooo wheeee” and “yeee haw” he yowls. Guitarist Eve Monsees, a co-owner of Antoine’s Record Shop in Austin with Mike Buck, plays scrumptious ear-catching licks with great early rock and roll abandon that supplement the song delectably.
“Spoonful” may well be the most well-known song in Howlin’ Wolf’s esteemed catalog, with the versions by Cream getting a ton of underground radio airplay (especially the epic Wheels of Fire extended rendering) and scores of other acts covering the song. Derek “Big House” O’Brien, Austin native and house band stalwart at Austin’s legendary Antone’s Nightclub, joins with Omar for a formidable twin guitar assault. The ever versatile O’Brien has lined up alongside Omar on numerous fruitful prior recordings. Wes Starr, also featured playing drums on quite a few other Omar recordings himself, obtains a primo-retro drum sound as he pairs off with Ronnie James on acoustic bass to anchor the dynamite rhythm section.
Dixon’s “Ooh Baby Hold Me” has some of the simplistic yet semi-risqué lyrics that were a constant feature of his best work. Omar sings it with an oozing gusto that continually grows more endearing with each listen. “When you squeeze me baby, you make me holler whoa, whoa, whoa,” he zestfully growls as the song boogies along with a relentless momentum. He may be saying whoa, whoa, whoa, but the impression given is that he is craving just the opposite. The smoldering guitar duo of Dykes and O’Brien playfully interact with churning wah-effects as a baritone saxophone wails along urgently.
On “Riding In The Moonlight”, the arrangement is stripped down to a raw bare-bones three piece with Omar on guitar, Bruce Jones on bass, and Wes Starr on drums. The song contains some authentic romping rockabilly paired with a guttural Dykes pleading vocal in which he stretches out the syllables of some of the lyrics to sound like he is gargling them. But, I mean that only in a good way; Omar is a clever master when it comes to intonation for effect.
“I don’t play anything but the blues, but now I could never make no money on nothin’ but the blues. That’s why I wasn’t interested in nothin’ else.” ~ Howlin’ Wolf (Chester Burnett)
The organ of Nick Connolly adds bluesy substance to ‘Who’s Been Talkin’, as does the tenor and baritone saxophones of Mark “Kaz” Kazanoff and Les Izmore. Eve Monsees returns to lay down a guitar sound that lashes and slithers along like a snake undulating throughout the song, complimenting the organ wonderfully. Mike Buck adds some intriguing percussion instruments, and do I have to mention Omar’s vocal prowess? It is constantly on display; here, there and everywhere on this album.
Connolly also makes a nice showing on the oft-covered Willie Dixon penned “Back Door Man”. The group gives the song a back-woods swamp-blues flavor, due in part I assume by the inclusion of twangy guitar great Richard “Casper” Rawls into the mix to accompany Omar on guitar. Casper is notorious for playing a specially-modified Fender Telecaster B-Bender guitar that offers some unusual unique tones. A legendary figure in the Austin area, as is Omar, together they wonderfully play off of each other’s strengths. Dave Alvin was quoted as saying “Casper can bend, twist and coax some powerful abstract soulful beauty out of a six-string guitar.” I whole heartedly concur with Alvin’s assessment. Bruce Jones, a long-time fixture with Omar & the Howlers, lays down an impeccable bass guitar presence on this song.
Casper and Jones are both on board and, along with Dykes and Starr, they come out with guns blazing in take-no-prisoners mode on “Worried All the Time”. High energy sparks abound on this song that offers a great arrangement chocked full of Texas Twang. On a disc that is full of quality cuts at every turn it is difficult to claim any one or two as favorites. But, the infectious spirit of “Worried All the Time” with its full-blooded potency is something extra special.
“Smokestack Lighting” is another of the all-time great blues songs, with its roots reaching back to the Mississippi Delta work chants and the birth of the blues. Raw and gritty, comprised of a simple one chord blues centered around a repeating guitar vamp, Wolf has been said to have based it on a song written by blues legend Charlie Patton, who Wolf performed with back in his early days. The song has been performed by countless groups, with slight variations, but the mesmerizing drone is always an ever-present factor. Ted Roddy is in tow for some inspired down-home blues mouth-harp while Derek O’Brien’s pulsating guitar assists in framing a moaning and groaning Dykes ominous vocal which resonates darkly dangerous and menacing enough to make a grown man shiver.
“We used to sit out in the country and see the trains go by, watch the sparks come out of the smokestack. That was smokestack lightning.” ~ Howlin’ Wolf
“Do the Do” features a Bo Diddley ‘Who Do You Love’ meets rhumba beat and the terrific saxophone duo of Kazanoff and Izmore. Eve Monsees plays a persistent guitar, Mike Buck pounds the rhythm, and Omar spits out the snake oil salesman vocal that all combine to steer the song along nicely.
The driving bluesy 4/4 shuffle of “I’m Leaving You” features an earthy raw vocal that leads to a guitar exchange between O’Brien and Dykes, who mutually mingle slices of Hubert Sumlin style guitar tension effectively. The acoustic bass of Ronnie James couples with the heavy backbeat of Wes Starr’s drums to construct a flow that grooves, while the title conveys the lyrical content concisely.
The powerhouse trio of Omar Dykes on blistering guitar, Ronnie James on rock solid bass guitar, and Mike Buck on drums lock into a steady blues101 groove that is deep as a millionaire’s pockets on “Tell Me What I’ve Done”. Omar selects the classic “Wang Dang Doodle” to close out the album with a bang. The Willie Dixon composition, a big hit for Koko Taylor as well as Wolf, has a frenzied rocking beat and the dual guitar work of Derek O’Brien and Omar Dykes. The song is dedicated to Hubert Sumlin in Dyke’s liner notes.
“It was a sheer joy to record my own spin on Howlin’ Wolf, the man who could sing the most bone crushing boogies and shuffles in the business.” ~ Omar Dykes
Omar Kent Dykes has once again hit major blues pay-dirt with Runnin’ with the Wolf. Omar continues to make compelling music because the blues are deep in his marrow, and on Runnin’ with the Wolf he has found great inspiration from some of his paramount heroes. Dykes learned his trade from the old blues masters, lived the music, survived the rigorous lifestyle, and has carried forward the tradition. This album is beyond doubt a wonderful example of truly great songs interpreted with an enormous depth and reverence by musicians who sincerely understand the blues.
Randall Parrish is a Senior Editor at Vivascene, with extensive publishing credits at various jazz and blues sites. He is also an avid guitar player whose musical knowledge of jazz, blues and roots music is widely respected. He can be reached by email here: RandallParrish@vivascene.com