Magic Sam ”Live at Avant Garde’ (Delmark) 4/5

Magic-SamSinger and guitarist Magic Sam (real name Sam Maghett) cut some of the funkiest Chicago blues albums in the 1960s and is the author of the seminal ‘West Side Soul’ which has now become a term for describing that particular style of the Windy City’s blues and ‘Black Magic’ (both on Delmark) and has subsequently influenced countless musicians. However, Magic Sam was by no means a prolific artist in terms of the output of his recordings and a combination of his earlier Cobra and Chief sides alongside the pairing of aforementioned Delmark’s represent the zenith of Sam’s recorded legacy. All the more reason, then, to cheer the first ever issuing of a live recording from some forty-five years ago by blues aficionado and at the time young sound engineer and producer Jim Chame who has captured Magic Sam in his prime at small club in Milwaukee in June 1968, the folk-oriented Avant Garde venue, that was both a coffee house and poetry reading establishment and even an underground cinema. In this somewhat cosy hub of 1960s counter-culture, the adventurous and radical selection of music included the likes of the reverend Gary Davis, Skip James and Fred McDowell as well as groups from the folk revival movement such as the New Lost City Ramblers. However, the electrified sounds of Magic Sam and group was an altogether different kettle of fish and just a ninety mile derive away from Chicago the new sounds permeating that great musical city were transported into the rural heartland of middle America. A classic selection of the modern blues repertoire forms the playlist of that particular June evening and reveals a profound love and respect for other blues musicians of the era. A strong take on Otis Rush’s ‘All your love (I miss loving)’ is an obvious highlight as is the take on Willie Dixon’s evergreen ‘Hoochie Coochie Man’. Others will marvel at the interpretation of ‘I don’t want no woman’ which for many typifies the West Side soul sound to perfection. This writer is particularly fond of an alternative version to Lowell Fulsom’s ‘It’s all your fault baby’ and ‘Still a fool’ which Muddy Waters wrote. As the excellent sleeve notes by Chame indicate, these sides were recorded at a time when the pop charts were full of bland easy listening material with Herb Alpert topping the US hit parade with ‘The guy’s in love with you’ and consequently the terrific music contained within must have come across as something from another planet altogether, so vibrant are the underlying grooves. Overall, the sound quality is crisp and clean (bass could be a tad higher, but that would be splitting musical hairs) and perfectly acceptable with the intimacy of the show conveyed extremely well.

Tim Stenhouse