The best tracks, from Houston in 1961, are up front where they belong. "Schoolgirl" is slight but speaks volumes: the guitar nearly silent, he sings with a magnificent leer. ("Lightnin's a schoolboy too!") "Coffee Blues" is a trifle, but has a great riff, dotted with little scratches. His solo, with delicate trills, is a standout. "Bring that coffee home!" he says at the end; here's hoping it's strong, like his blues.
We move forward three years, Lightnin' on electric and with a trio. (This group, with Gaskin and Lovelle, made two albums for Prestige.) The sound is cloudy, the songs likewise: "I Like to Boogie" has the "Coffee Blues" riff, taken slower. Hopkins' axe sounds cleaner, but still makes a good twang. Nothing special, though the solo is nice. "Get It Straight" could almost be country, a sweet little lick and easy vocals. This feels good and ends in a minute. Don't worry; we'll hear it again....
The second half comes from a club date in New York. The crowd is noisy, the room has a wicked echo -- that's fine, 'cause that's how Lightnin' feels. "I been wonderin' why the peoples/ Can't understand as I do." Another mistreatin' woman; another down-home solo. The crowd approves, and here comes another story. "My little girl, she has a little boyfriend - I thought I was the only one." The pace picks up, and he says "You Is One Black Rat" with a great deal of passion. Simply angry; now it gets tragic. "Nowhere to Lay My Head" offers a lonely road and a hungry man. "I asked the Lord, 'God .... Father .... help me.'" The notes turn soft, the crowd goes silent - pure lonesome. At least, until the applause comes.
"Just Boogyin'" is a cute instrumental, nothing but a walking bass line and a happy riff. And that will suffice. "Take Me Back" is "Get It Straight": same riff, some of the same words. It's OK, but I preferred it the first time. "Dowling Street" tells of Lightnin's home, "a nice place to go to get an education." A worried string starts twittering; the police come calling. "Why is it you white folks keep picking on me?" In the cell, he says "we cried together": the guitar weeps eloquent. A grand strum, and triumphant applause. By turns he's been bitter, sly, prayerful, mad - and we believe every word. A fine performance; he got it straight.
Rating: *** ¾. Recommended are the first four tracks, "Get It Straight", "Dowling Street", and "Got Nowhere to Lay My Head".