[3 November 2009]
Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Willie Dixon: the trifecta of Chicago blues. Magic Sam, Buddy Guy, Junior Wells: also men of stature in the Windy City tradition. Elmore James, Little Walter, Jimmy Reed: the list of blues giants in the Chicago style goes on. When the blues moved out of the country and into the city, plugged in and packed clubs, these were the men that defined the sounds that came out of Chicago. But there’s another chapter in the legacy of the genre, an often-overlooked crop of artists that slathered the original stomp ‘n’ swagger with gobs of funk and soul in the mid-1970s, turning South Side venues like Pepper’s Hideout and the Patio Lounge into havens for club-goers hungry for blues that didn’t so much swing as it slithered.
Formed in 2003, the Chicago-based Numero Group has been “dragging brilliant recordings, films and photography out of unwarranted obscurity… we’re on a dirty, labor-intensive mission… and it’s urgent as all hell. Time kills of precious bits of passed-over sound, story and ephemera every day, just as fast as we can haul this sprawling archive of under-heard recordings—along with the musicians, writers, and entrepreneurs who created them—out of exile.” Light on the South Side, the latest addition to the label’s collection of about 60 officially released titles, ranging from power pop to vintage New York disco and rap, soul, gospel, folk, and more, is an enthralling look into the lost South Side nightclubs, patrons, and musicians through a 12"x12” book featuring 132 pages of remarkable black-and-white photos, a few essays, and “Pepper’s Jukebox”, an accompanying compilation soundtrack with 18 of the nastiest blues-funk tunes ever laid down.
Light on the South Side bumps along, sounding like golden outtakes from lost sessions where James Brown’s backing band got together with Booker T and the MGs at the Stax studios—all while an insanely talented batch of unknown singers took turns at the mic, wavering from vocal approaches hot, bothered, and throat-tearing to cool, sleek, and silky.
Chicago-style blues harmonica is omnipresent, albeit it in smaller doses; in fact, harmonica and guitar solos are almost completely absent here—the searing, stinging licks typically associated with blues recordings are substituted for tight horn sections, revival-tent organ, and only occasionally, a syrupy string section. Further pushing along the blues paradox, the guitar work here interlocks with the bottomless bass ‘n’ drums groove, employing an impressive range of sounds from a dirty, fuzzed-out tube-amp mess to trebly, clean lines to classic, chikka-chikka wah-wah swells—no slide guitar, no flashy, lightning-fast runs up and down the fretboard, no guitar heroes.
Slow-burners like Little Mack Simmons’ “The Same One” and Willie Davis’ “I Learned My Lesson” are perfectly balanced with straight-up dance numbers like Hugh Hawkins’ “Bring it Down Front” and Artie White’s “Gimme Some of Yours” to incredible effect. Many of these blues pieces sound more troubled than the tunes associated with the aforementioned blues pantheon—yet so much of it sounds even more joyous, celebratory, and uplifting than the cheeriest of tunes in the vast blues catalog.
The only downside? To some, it’s a plus: this beast of a collection is being released (almost) exclusively on vinyl. Only the first 250 copies (already sold out) come with a link to download the album as 320kps MP3s. So if you want to hear this, you better get yourself a turntable—and why wouldn’t you? This stuff has got to sound unbelievable through a needle. Or find a friend with one of the early copies. Otherwise, here’s hoping that it’s reissued later in digital form. This is such an incredible find, and the music is far too great, to just put it in the hands of those who can summon these sounds out of a stylus.