Magic Sam • Live at the Avant Garde 1968

Magic Sam

MAGIC SAM

Live at the Avant Garde

Delmark Records, 2013

The new Magic Sam album is outrageously great. I would say the same about virtually any other Sam Maghett recording–he never made a bad one, and that includes not only his studio work but the four live albums already available (five if one counts the solo house party set Give Me Time), which seem to have been taped almost by chance. Live at the Avant Garde is different in that it was recorded, at a Milwaukee appearance in 1968, to the highest standard of an amateur engineer. Though I had heard at least one of the earlier live shows in private circulation before it received its official (or semi-official) release, the existence of the Avant Garde tape came as a total surprise. Mindful of the adage about gift horses, I don’t question why it has become available after remaining a secret for so long. I am merely grateful, and deeply.

Unlike the other known live recordings of Sam, Avant Garde’s sound is clear and present, and the mix is fine (the set’s engineer and producer Jim Charne details the recording’s technical aspects in his liner notes). Sam’s voice and guitar are out front and crystal-clear, and Bob Richey’s drums are crisp as one could wish. Another reviewer has stated that Mojo Elem’s electric bass is inaudible. Not so. On my copy, it’s plenty loud enough for any blues band, provided that your taste has not been formed by rock soundmen, club DJs, or certain latter-day “blues” CD mixes. I’d also observe that Elem’s no-frills approach makes a better foundation for Sam than Bruce Barlow’s busy playing on Live 1969 • Raw Blues and the Ann Arbor sides.

Sam himself is in top form. His was one of the most intense and identifiable voices in the blues, with a resonant, declamatory style marked by an unusual reliance on tremolo (volume variation) rather than vibrato (pitch variation). In this show he sounds totally at ease, but with no diminution of his power. He is masterful. His guitar work? Hold on, baby! A red Epiphone Riviera into a Fender Twin Reverb (as shown in the cover photo, taken at the gig) yields beautiful tone, and the singular drive and depth that mark every note Sam ever committed to tape are all vividly present. A couple of hesitations and a slip of the fingers here and there are, I think, the only (barely noticeable) imperfections in an otherwise confident, peak form demonstration of Sam’s patented rhythm-to-lead playing. His creativity and energy are boundless; even the songs that appear in multiple versions across the live albums are packed with excitement and fresh ideas.

The playlist, pretty typical of Sam’s live recordings, contains a variety of material intended to entertain. Sam’s ‘50s classics, those sinuous, minor-flavored, tremolo-laden sides that defined the West Side style for all time, are represented by “Bad Luck Blues” (originally “Out Of Bad Luck”), with Lowell Fulson’s “It’s All Your Fault Baby” and Jimmy McCracklin’s “Every Night, Every Day” performed in the same framework as a bonus. The innovative output of his two albums for Delmark is present in “That’s All I Need,” which retains its lilting, Sam Cooke flavor even at an accelerated tempo, and by the driving boogaloo “You Belong To Me.” Over the remainder of the 16 tracks, Sam interprets the work of heroes Bobby Bland (a live-wire “Don’t Want No Woman”), Muddy Waters (“Still A Fool”–harrowing–and “Hoochie Coochie Man”), Jimmy Rogers (“That’s All Right”), and B.B. King (a brilliant “Hully Gully Twist” and a loose “I Need You So Bad”), and contemporaries Freddy King (“San-Ho-Zay”), Junior Wells (a liquid “Come On In This House”), and Otis Rush, whose “All Your Love (I Miss Loving)” is a rare and special treat. Junior Parker’s Memphis stomp “Feelin’ Good” is here, as is the instrumental it inspired, Sam’s incredible, show-stopping boogie “Lookin’ Good.”

Although Sam offers some good-natured patter and gives shout-outs to the taper and the club owners, the well-lubricated camaraderie, self-promotion, and enthusiastic banter heard in the home turf Alex Club shows are subdued by comparison in the coffee house environment. But the musical aspects of the performance are unaffected. I have eagerly, and repeatedly, listened to everything that has come out on Magic Sam, regardless of its audio fidelity, and Sam has never let me down: He always brought it. Sam died too young and not often enough recorded. Improbably, given its late release, Live at the Avant Garde is all cream; nothing about it asks the listener to settle for anything less than the best. And Magic Sam was the best. His unsurpassed charisma and talent continue to thrill, 45 years later. Live at the Avant Garde is a dream come true for fans of electric blues in general and Magic Sam in particular.

TOM HYSLOP

I bought this album from bluebeatmusic.com and received this review copy from the label.

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Paul Metsa & Willie Walker • Live on Highway 55

Metsa Walker FntCover

Paul Metsa & Willie Walker

Live on Highway 55

MaximumFolk.com

http://paulandwillie.com

A well-respected singer and songwriter since the 1970s, the Minnesota-based Paul Metsa is a noted scholar, activist, promoter, statesman, and author, all in connection with his musical endeavors. Willie Walker is simply one of the best soul singers in the business, probably best known today to those outside the Twin Cities area for his recent work with the Butanes–three albums’ worth of very fine original soul and blues material by Curtis Obeda–and for the coveted handful of sides he recorded for Checker and Goldwax in the ’60s.

To my knowledge, despite Walker and Metsa’s long-term acquaintance and geographic proximity, Live on Highway 55 marks their first recording together. The duo proves to be a natural pairing, even though each artist is working a bit outside his comfort zone: Metsa stays completely off of the microphone, and plays a set that is slightly different from his usual folk and blues repertoire; and Walker, who (in spite of a few catalog items, like his vintage single of “Ticket to Ride” and a cover of The Eagles’ “I Can’t Tell You Why” on his first, eponymous long-player) generally favors soul music, stretches effortlessly into material like the Louis Armstrong standard “What a Wonderful World,” “House of the Rising Sun,” and a bluesy “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” that relies less on the version by Bobby Womack than on Bessie Smith or Derek & The Dominos.

Walker’s voice has aged appealingly, developing a controlled raspiness–a frayed quality reminiscent of Eddie Hinton or Johnnie Taylor–more pronounced than it held in the “Wee” Willie Walker days, and gained in complexity and emotional resonance, while retaining all the suppleness and smooth glide of his idol Sam Cooke’s (his show-stopping interpretation of “A Change is Gonna Come” has to be heard). Metsa rises admirably to the task of evoking the well-known, sometimes quite complicated original versions of songs like “My Girl” or “Good Time Charlie’s Got The Blues.” Whether he is converting “I’d Rather Drink Muddy Water” into a minor groove à la “Help Me,” or adding a succinct blues guitar solo, sparkling with harmonics, to “Bring It On Home” (another Cooke classic), his accompaniment is adept, dynamic, and inventive. He has clearly internalized these songs to a rare degree; even without Walker’s amazing vocal, the depth of Metsa’s arrangement of “Blowin’ in the Wind” absolutely puts to shame the paint-by-numbers version released last year by an acclaimed, and usually terrific, guitarist who was a long-time member of Bob Dylan’s band.

The challenges Metsa and Walker offer each other notwithstanding, Live on Highway 55 is not as adventurous in its selection of material as, say, Bettye LaVette’s albums for the Anti- label, but it is just fine; those who swore they never again needed to hear “When a Man Loves a Woman” or “Ain’t No Sunshine” will be forced to eat their words. Nor is it perfect in every aspect–Walker sings the wrong words to Little Willie John’s “Fever” every time the chorus comes around, and I guess we’ll have to wait for a studio record to hear Metsa’s guitar sound its best (miked up, that is, instead of amplified through a pickup). But it represents far more than a souvenir for those who attended the live in-studio show in April 2013 that produced the disc. Live on Highway 55 documents a fruitful partnership and a beautiful session that rewards repeated listening.

TOM HYSLOP

I purchased this CD from the artist.