In the winter of 1978 I was living on the South Side of Chicago, marooned with a bunch of other U Chicago undergraduates in a largely-condemned 1920s-era hotel on the shores of the
I hated the place: I was coming off a freshman-year here, which had been one of the most amazing intellectual experiences of my 17 years, and UC by comparison was big, pretentious, oblivious, and had a visible inferiority complex toward the Ivy League. The snow lay piled four and five feet high on the sidewalks (Blizzard of ’78 in
See, UC and its
The Checkerboard was in Bronzeville on
But there was a whole ‘nother blues scene, beyond the South Side, in the 1970s, and neither I—nor, I’d guess, most other denizens black or white of the Checkerboard—was much aware of it. That was over on the West Side, in even tinier clubs like Rosa’s, where the bandstand was so small that you couldn’t fit a second guitar player, so the guitarists over there learned to hold down both parts themselves. King of that scene had been Mississippi-born Magic Sam Maghett, already a noted recording artist for Cobra (Otis Rush’s label), who had gone on to lead bands and record for Bob Koester’s great blues-revivalist label Delmark: his West Side Soul was a great record, capturing the interaction of Sam’s Memphis-flavored Strat and a band of heavy-hitters out of Muddy’s band, but (in my opinion) it didn’t really capture what Sam himself was capable of. He was a great singer and fantastic and funky guitar player, schooled by playing for gospel quartets and in six-fingered Homesick James’s hard-rocking band, but he was at his greatest with the minimal backup of bass and drums.
In August ’69 White Panther John Sinclair had put together a blues & jazz festival for
Sam was supposed to go on at 3pm on Sunday, but, in typically relaxed West-Side fashion,arrived late with his regular bass player and no drummer. He recruited Sam Lay out of Muddy’s band 2 minutes before they hit the stage, some anonymous hippie volunteering as sound man turned on a tape machine patched out of the board, and this is the record that resulted.
It’s an absolute tour-de-force in the blues power trio. Nowadays, with every corner bar holding a Stevie Ray clone and a rock rhythm section, we forget that nobody played the electric blues in a power trio format. Buddy had yet to take on the Hendrix fixation that he in turn passed on to Stevie, and the presumption was that every blues band needed a rhythm guitar player, and probably a piano-player, just to lay down the groove that would get the dancers out on the floor.
But Sam’s revved-up Memphis-style thumb-and-finger playing was an entire orchestra in itself, the way that Robert Johnson’s had been (and there are stories that just prior to his death in ’38, Robert had been gigging around the Delta with an electric rhythm section)—so the minimalist bass-and-drums rhythm section doesn’t drag, but rather fills out the sound. He plays Jimmy Reed (Tore Down) and Freddie King (the instrumental San-Ho-Zay), even throwing in a turbo-charged version of Robert’s Sweet Home Chicago, and the set is like a primer in how to play modern blues guitar: you can actually hear the rhythm section picking up on what Sam’s doing, growing more and more confident and assertive with each new tune in the set. I certainly learned to play the blues guitar from this two-LP set.
The electric blues should be like jazz—it should allow for wildly idiosyncratic individual choices (viz Lightnin’s “Lightnin change [the chord] when Lightnin’ want to change), but it should also be a shared musical language. It’s exhilarating to hear this prove out: bassist Bruce Barlow (another young white boy learning the blues, who would go on to play with Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen) knows the tunes and the changes, but drummer Sam Lay is having to pick up on Magic Sam’s moves moment to moment. The amazing thing is that it works, and there’s a visceral excitement about the recording, horrific technical quality though it is, simply because you’re hearing it develop moment by moment. By the time they played Sam’s closing signature song, the funk-tinged Looking Good, the crowd was screaming so much that the producers brought the band back on—whereupon they played an encore of Looking Good, once again.
The blues reacts: if somebody jumps up on the sticky red-and-white linoleum tile of the Checkerboard and wants to sing on, if someone else in the club is celebrating a birthday, if a police raid is going down and the bar-owner has slipped out the door to avoid it, if the guitar-player shows up at the festival with no drummer—the music is supposed to be able to adapt and react.
It’s a great treasure to have such a fantastic example of this adaptivity, at such a crucial moment in the revival’s final twilight. Within a year or two some of these players would be gone: Freddy in ’76, Sleepy John in ’77, Son and Lightnin’ in the 80s. It was a last flowering of the music’s full recorded history—and of Sam’s: on Dec 1 1969, less than four months after this performance, he keeled over and died from an unexpected heart attack. There have been other recordings and reissues, some with better sound or more extensively-rehearsed bands. But, thanks to that anonymous hippie at the soundboard, Live at the Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Festival captures the West Side blues the way I remember it, warts and all, from that cold, sad, life-altering, mind-expanding winter 30 years ago.