Wednesday, August 02, 2006

100 Greats in 100 Days # 037: Magic Sam: Live at Ann Arbor and Chicago

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 Lake, which the University was renting from the city to house its overflow undergrads. The hotel itself was a spooky place, with, as I’ve said, multiple floors which were condemned and thus off-limits to the students living there. Of course, that didn’t stop us, late at night, from sneaking up elevator shafts and down fire escapes to check out the deserted spaces, especially the roof and the ballrooms—which were very spooky, with tattered curtains still blowing in the drafts of the 40-foot windows. Every morning we’d schlep onto City-of-Chicago busses for the run east, into and across Hyde Park, to the UC campus.

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 Chicago was a brutal time) I also experienced my first grand passion and the pain that usually accompanies same (word of advice: if at all possible, don't fall in love with a poet--especially if she's a good one), and my first encounters with the Sex Pistols. If I’d known then what I know now, I would have coped very differently and a lot more happily (but, with hindsight, don’t we all say that?). As it was, I just fell into a pretty classic spell of depression, and spent all my time sleeping, reading in the UC library (great library), and discovering the blues clubs on the South Side.

See, UC and its Hyde Park community were a white enclave in the midst of the black ghetto. During orientation, UC staff had issued us dire warnings about how paranoid we needed to be, and about how we should not under any circumstances ride the El or otherwise mingle with the “locals.” I blew that off—I had been living in Manhattan for a year, in Alphabet City, and walking everywhere on the island, including volunteering and listening to proto-hip-hoppers in the Parks the Bronx and Spanish Harlem. So I rode the busses and the El and I went out to the funky little blues clubs that dotted the South Side, in the old days before the blues in Chicago literally went “uptown” into neighborhoods the white Yuppies would venture into. Teresa’s and Pepper’s were the most famous but my favorite was the Checkerboard Lounge, owned by guitar great Buddy Guy, who’d recorded with Muddy and, by the time I lived there, was a regularly jamming party of English blues guys like Clapton and Beck (in fact, I heard a great story in the Checkerboard about a night when Clapton had dropped in to jam, and Buddy got word that a raid was going down, and slipped out, leaving Slowhand to take the bust; it was probably the greatest night of Clapton’s life).

The Checkerboard was in Bronzeville on 43rd street, and most nights, especially when Buddy was out of town, the gig was held down by his rhythm-guitar-playing brother Phil, from who I heard my first P-Funk and Johnny “Guitar” Watson tunes. There was a great ribs joint next door that stayed open ‘til the bar itself closed. There was a chain across the open door to the Checkerboard and a large gentleman would check ID’s and collect the admission charge (usually $2 for people from outside the neighborhood). Inside, the bar was along the right hand wall, separated by a row of cheap lally columns from the tables and vinyl-upholstered chairs of the club section. The stage was just inside and to the left of the door and was maybe 6 inches off the floor. We went there a lot of nights. I was pretty comfortable there, and would bring UC friends down: the neighborhood was used to young white boys coming in to check out the blues, because it had been going on ever since the late ‘50s when the YWB were Paul Butterfield and Mike Bloomfield.

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 Ann Arbor, running it virtually head-to-head against the upcoming Woodstock fest. And, with his contacts around Detroit and Chicago, he’d been able to put a stellar lineup, that really reminds us of what the waning days of the blues revival were like for blues heads: it included BB and Freddy, T-Bone, Muddy, Wolf, Otis, Buddy and Junior, but also Arthur Crudup, Clifton Chenier, Roosevelt Sykes, Sleepy John Estes, Son House, Lightnin’ Hopkins, and Big Joe Williams. It’ll never again be possible to get such a constellation of legendary bluesmen, representing the entire history of the music its ‘20s roots in the Delta (Son) and Memphis (John and Big Joe), its reincarnation as jump blues in the hands of T-Bone and later BB, its detours to Texas and Louisiana (Lightnin’ and Clifton), and its modern Chicago manifestations (Muddy and Otis) and next generations (Buddy and Junior). My friend Bob Franke, a student at UM-Ann Arbor, was volunteering, and he remembers it costing 2 bucks to get in.

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.


Anonymous said...

Sigh...I envy those who've had the chance to listen, appreciate, and learn from the "Old Guard". I try to approach life with a similar game plan, and I find it depressing that more & more of the "New Guard" discard the lessons offered to them. It seems even in obviously aural traditions (hip hop, blues, jazz) there is a greater reliance on trends and/or book learnin'. To top it off, the incestuous/cannibalistic nature of today's "market" kills whatever doesn't sell 5 million copies of "product" in the first month...Sigh, I'm not an artist, I don't pander to the masses, I don't want to sell shit, I want to play the shit out of my guitar & kill anything that stands in my way!

CJS said...

Well, yeah. But we're fortunate to live in an age when we actually *can* go to school on the revered teachers who went before: Lad O Beirne learned from Michael Coleman records, Buddy Guy learned from Muddy Waters records, Charlie Parker learned from Lester Young records. Yes, it's a great gift to be in the same room with some of these giants, because you can realize how much there is to learn just from their *physical presences*--but you can still learn from them at a farther remove.

And it's about love, ultimately.