John Primer, a force on the Chicago Blues scene, has been stomping through Chicago blues music since 1963. He’s been through the Willie Dixon and the Muddy Waters blues mill! He’s been around—though always just shy of center stage. Since the mid-1980s, Primer has been playing with Magic Slim and the Teardrops. (The promo material calls him Magic Slim’s bandleader—I wonder what Mr. Slim would say about that?) In terms of tradition, Primer is a bluesman to be reckoned with. His playing, and more so his skills as a centerpoint for the band, are mature and honed.
On It’s a Blues Life, Primer collects 12 songs, nine covers and three of his own. He ranges from T-Bone Walker to Willie Dixon to Stevie Ray Vaughan. His takes on all these songs well-rounded and complete. The entire album was cut in just one day in 1998, but no song sounds rushed or sloppily played. The musicianship is excellent. The harp skills of Steve Bell shine on many tracks, soaring above the quarter-note backdrop of the rhythm section. Where Primer really excels are on the up-beat boogie numbers. His blues shuffle would keep me on the dance floor even without my pre-dancing three beer minimum.
Ultimately, I think that Primer’s music (including his interpretations of others’ songs) falls a little flat. No matter how good this material is, you’ve probably heard this stuff before. His playing, his voicing, and straight-ahead boogie style, matured and clean as they are, remain essentially unmemorable. At a blues festival, Primer’s set might the one when I would go get a hot dog.