[14 January 2004]
The chances are good that just hearing the phrase West Side Chicago Blues makes Magic Sam come to mind. One of the major figures of the Chicago West Side, if not considered the King of the scene, Sam Maghett was on the Delmark roster when he recorded his searing West Side Soul, an album that still ranks top slot among the penultimate Chicago blues recordings. So it’s most fitting that Magic Sam makes his appearance here on this Delmark collection. There are eight other headliners on this disc, though some are nearly unknown outside of Chicago. Their work here provides a tasty slice of the city’s musical history. West Side Chicago Blues is a solid introduction to this sub-genre of Chicago blues.
This is a fine compilation of that basic, uncluttered style of playing that has continued stubbornly on. Music from the West Side seems to have remained its essential and recognizable self throughout all the intervening years since the music first gained its form. The straight-ahead, raw-boned approach seems oblivious to any musical influence outside its own geography and impervious to any change other than that of recording techniques. The roughest edges may occasionally splinter off or chip away, but they are rarely sanded completely smooth. The opening track “Cut You A Loose” by Otis Rush sets the tone for the music that follows. The shared guitar parts (by Otis Rush and Mighty Joe Young) feel more like an attack, and even the ground underfoot begins rolling from the baritone and tenor saxes pumping together like pistons. This song jumps in tough, grabs for the lapels, and gives a mighty shake from side to side. Singing straight from the back of his throat to be heard over the surging fast-running current of electric guitars, horn section, and organ, Rush lays out his gritty response to the hurt of realizing he’s only wanted for his money.
Segueing into Willie Kent’s upbeat “Do You Love Me?”, this is a quick study in contrasts. While Rush’s group is rasping and shouting their hurt, Kent’s group is like a spoonful of honey to keep the ache at bay. The beautiful rich tone of Jake Dawson’s guitar is a splendid match to Kent’s mellow, soulful voice. Dawson’s bubbling single note leads are quiet and understated, even during his soloing. Confident in his skill but not given to grandstanding, he can even play off the spare notes thrown out by the rippling piano rhythms. If by now the blues fan’s appetite has been whetted and the poor fool is positively slavering in anticipation of more tasty guitar work, prepare for the man, Magic Sam. His slow blues “I Need You So Bad” (drawn from his legendary West Side Soul mentioned above) features not only the hard-picking Magic Sam, but Mighty Joe Young simmers underneath on guitar as well.
Not all West Side musicians are nearly as well known outside of the district as Otis Rush, Magic Sam, or Mighty Joe Young. Which gives Delmark the opportunity to introduce the relatively obscure name of the Taildragger (that’s his picture on the cover). Howlin’ Wolf’s longtime touring partner and saxman Eddie Shaw lends his fat greasy tenor sax to “You Gotta Go”, an upbeat tune, rhythmically speaking. The hoarse voice of the Taildragger gruffly orders his woman out the door. He kicks her out, banishes her from his home because he’s found out that she just can’t change her ways, and he won’t put up with that. She’s “Still selling dope and down on the corner, too”. This hard pushing electric blues, sounding for all the world like it was set down more than thirty years ago, was actually recorded in 1998.
The disc fills out nicely with Syl Johnson’s slow-stepping “Driving Wheel”. Johnson’s high-pitched voice vibrates and quivers over softly picked electric guitars. Written by piano man Roosevelt Sykes, the song’s instrumental solo honors are accorded to the throbbing, sweeping organ work of Charles Hodges. In fact, all the Hodges brothers contribute here (there’s also Teenie on guitar, Fred on piano, and LeRoy on bass). Guitarslinger Jimmy Dawkins pulls heavily distorted chords and runs out for his instrumental version of “Chittlins Con Carne”, while Luther Allison concentrates on sparkling clean single-string runs and turnarounds on “You Done Lost Your Good Thing”.
There’s always a hidden gem nestled and hidden even in a crown made up of jewels such as these, and for this listener that is Little Arthur Duncan. “Singin’ with the Sun” is a slow blues shout that seems to have turned its back and walked away from a Mississippi Plantation all the way up to Chicago. This is a long song, nearly seven minutes, propelled by the rhythm of a slow long walk, with eerie twin guitar work by Rockin’ Johnny and Billy Flynn. This blues echoes back to a distant time and place, although it was recorded in 1999. Duncan’s heavily echoed voice and reverbed harp and the sustained steel brush on cymbals make hearing about the sun seem chilly and strange.
Closing things out is Johnny B. Moore working in front of a rousing horn section on “Sittin’ Here Thinkin’”. There inevitably might be some who grouse there are only nine tracks on this eight dollar budget priced release, a part of the series commemorating Delmark’s golden anniversary. For this reviewer, the welcome introduction to fine musicians whose music is overall so rich and complex to warrant an embarrassing amount of repeated play, that scarcely matters. For everyone, West Side Chicago Blues is an affordable and unique opportunity to hear some of the great talents of that locale on a disc that is likely to remain in their music collections from here on out.