Fresh off the release of its fiery “Try It...You Might Like It!” tribute LP to Hound Dog Taylor, GA-20 performs the Chicago blues legend’s music live in these electrifying studio sessions.
The Boston trio GA-20, like Hound Dog Taylor, the late blues giant it honors, is more accomplished and polished than it lets on. It takes work to achieve what singer-guitarist Pat Faherty calls “reckless improvisational playing.”
Formed in 2018 in the white-boys-play-the-blues tradition that stretches from the Rolling Stones to the Black Keys, GA-20 latched onto Taylor, the influential bluesman from Chicago’s South and West Sides, as a spirit guide. The group’s humbly titled 2021 album, “Try It...You Might Like It!: GA-20 Does Hound Dog Taylor,” is the raw sound of two raunchy bar-band guitarists and a drummer who comes across like Animal of the Muppets but has clearly studied the controlled jazz-and-blues swing of the Stones’ Charlie Watts and Taylor’s own Ted Harvey.
A 13-minute documentary crashes through three Taylor tracks: “It’s Alright,” the jumping instrumental “Phillips Goes Bananas” and the blues legend’s signature track, “Give Me Back My Wig.” All three band members wear jean jackets and look like they’ve never been introduced to a comb, but their experience and confidence kick in right away. Guitarist Matthew Stubbs also tours with Chicago blues-harmonica hero Charlie Musselwhite and has played with vets like John Hammond Jr. and James Cotton. He primarily plays bass lines on his guitar, which allows Faherty to fly over the top with twisty bottleneck solos.
Matching the controlled chaos of Taylor is impossible. He was born in Natchez, Miss., and appeared on the influential Helena, Ark., radio broadcast “King Biscuit Time” before moving to Chicago in 1942. He became a part of the club scene beginning in the ‘50s, but was largely a marginal figure compared to contemporaries such as Buddy Guy and Otis Rush. He finally enjoyed some wider recognition thanks to Bruce Iglauer, who founded the Chicago blues label Alligator Records to record Taylor. The guitarist’s 1971 debut, “Hound Dog Taylor and the HouseRockers,” remains a classic. But Taylor’s life was continually beset by turmoil and alcoholism. Iglauer tells the story of Taylor shooting his beloved lead guitarist, Brewer Phillips — twice — after Phillips made a crude joke about Taylor’s wife when his wife happened to be within earshot in the next room. Taylor died at 60, in 1975, in a Chicago hospital — after an emotional reunion with Phillips.
In GA-20’s version of Phillips’ showcase “Phillips Goes Bananas,” Stubbs’ killer riff provides a rock-solid backbone for Faherty to bounce against and strum solos that conjure what it must have been like to drink and smoke at a West Side club in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Drummer Tim Carman doesn’t so much join Stubbs in the rhythm section as float around him with propulsive shuffling fills.
GA-20’s musical thesis statement isn’t new, but the band comes at it with a unique purity. Unlike North Mississippi Allstars, who stretch their blues into long jams, or the Black Keys, who combine punk and blues to point to a new kind of pop music, GA-20 wants to “set up some amps in a room and play [Taylor’s] music our way,” Faherty says. “We’ve always had a connection to all his songs and the way he played.” It’s hard to imagine a worthier blues cause.
“GA-20 Does Hound Dog Taylor Live!” Setlist
1. It’s Alright
2. Phillips Goes Bananas
3. Give Me Back My Wig
Steve Knopper is a Billboard editor at large, former Rolling Stone editor, author of “Appetite for Self-Destruction: The Spectacular Crash of the Record Industry in the Digital Age” and “MJ: The Genius of Michael Jackson” and a contributor to The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Chicago Tribune and many other publications. He lives in Denver, Colorado.