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CD REVIEW -- Steve Freund & Gloria Hardiman
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Set Me Free

Delmark Records 

Freund, Hardiman set me free CD art

by Mark Baier

As an art form, the blues is timeless. With the possible exception of 1968’s Electric Mud, (which fused Muddy Waters’ blues with the psychedelia of Rotary Connection) older recordings from the birth of the Blues until the present remain fresh and vital examples of the genre, typically devoid of ephemeral trends and gimmicks. The reverence with which prewar artists and 1950s blues are regarded are obvious examples of the blues’ stylistic permanence. Thus the re-examination of older recordings represents a treasure trove of discovery and enjoyment. Chicago’s Delmark Records’ release of 1983’s Set Me Free, a collaboration between vocalist Gloria Hardiman and guitar slinger Steve Freund, is an excellent example of a long out-of-print 33 1/3 record that deserves a fresh listen and audience.



By 1983 Steve Freund had established himself as one of the top players in Chicago’s blues community. A native of Brooklyn, he arrived in Chicago in 1976 armed with Sunnyland Slim’s business card and a desire to play the blues with the world’s finest blues musicians. With Sunnyland’s imprimatur, he soon found himself doing just that, sharing the bandstand with the likes of Hubert Sumlin, Floyd Jones and Big Walter Horton seven nights a week. By 1978 he was Sunnyland’s #1 guitarist, working just about every gig he did until the time of Sunnyland’s death. Based on this high regard with which Freund was held, Razor Records’ principals Mark Lefens and Mike Landers approached him to organize a recording featuring a then unknown vocalist, Gloria Hardiman, whom they had recently “discovered”, plucking her right out of the church choir pews.


At the time, Razor had already committed to a recording project with Freund, making the timing of Gloria’s discovery an almost divine providence. Blessed with a dimensional, powerful contralto, Hardiman’s control, tone and vocal force invites comparisons to Aretha Franklin and Koko Taylor in their prime -- a voice that was born to sing Chicago Blues. Thus, after the ‘Gloria meet Steve; Steve meet Gloria’ moment, the two set out to make a great blues record, and to do that, they needed a killer band. To this end, Freund enlisted a first class assembly of Chicago sidemen featuring Harlan Terson and Bob Stroger on bass, Ken Saydak on piano, and Eddie Turner on drums. From this core group of session vets was borne “The Blueprints”, a band united around Gloria Hardiman’s powerful vocals.

Blueprints promo photo
The Blueprints (L to R): Harlan Terson, Gloria Hardiman, Ken Saydak, Steve Freund, Eddie Turner

Also enlisted was Freund’s ‘regular’ band with the great Sunnyland Slim, featuring Slim on piano, Stroger on bass and Fred Grady on drums. This crew is featured on three of the album cuts. The actual vinyl pressing contained 10 tunes, and they are featured in the original running order. Remember that in 1983, making a record was a big deal; it represents a big investment that normally results in only the best being preserved for the ages. One listen to Set Me Free, and it’s clear that Freund & Hardiman were up to the task.


Set Me Free kicks off with a stinging guitar figure from Freund that propels the listener into Bobby Blue Bland’s You Got Me. Freund and the band absolutely own the groove with Hardiman pulling no punches, taking the listener on a tour de force rendering of the Bland classic. Her control, pitch, rhythm and pace are perfect. The next two selections, Jimmy Rogers’ That’s Alright and Jammin’ with Sam, feature the Sunnyland crew and not surprisingly, is Chicago Blues at its finest, played by some of the best in the business. The interaction between the players on these cuts is easy and natural, belying their obvious familiarity with each other. Jammin’ With Sam in particular is a rollicking syncopated instrumental featuring saxophone courtesy of Sam Burkhardt with Freund offering a textbook example of what to play and when to play it. It’s worth noting that while the musicianship on Set Me Free is first class in every  way, there no sense of showboating or overplaying by anyone. Guitar solos are melodic and appropriate for the groove, the piano is never too forward or overpowering, and with Stroger and Terson on bass, there’s always a smooth reliable low end to tap your foot to.  Ike Turner’s The Way That You Love Me is up next and it rocks the house, leaving Let Me Down Easy’s slow soul to shore up Side One.


set me free vinyl LP cover art
original LP cover for Set Me Free

Side 2 (vinyl, remember?) starts out with Aretha Frankin’s Dr. Feelgood, and if there was ever a song to demonstrate vocal chops, this is it. Hardiman mixes equal parts control and tone with power and confidence to near perfection. To have witnessed her performing this song live, in a little club like Lilly’s in 1983, would’ve been an unforgettable experience. Next up is the South Side staple, I Done Got Over It, and it’s a great example of the authority Freund and the Blueprints brought to the stage every night. On Things I Used to Do, Freund takes the vocal lead with Sunnyland and Co. contributing their third performance of Set Me Free. Freund’s vocal is mature beyond his years, and certainly leaves the listener wanting more. His rendition of this road worn chestnut is smooth and sure. Last up is Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson’s classic Kidney Stew giving the entire band a chance to stretch out instrumentally and blow some licks. It’s a trip back to Lilly’s again: “Here’s one more before we take a short break”.


This 2014 Delmark release of Razor’s 1983 recording features four additional songs not included on the original pressing, and frankly, they do seem tacked on after the fact. Otis Rush’s venerable Homework is included, and despite Hardiman’s solid vocal treatment, it ends up feeling more like a J. Geils song than a Chicago blues song. Next is Brook Benton’s Kiddio, and it, too, seems like a bit of a throwaway, with a piano heavy mix and a stiff sound. The final two songs are basically Ken Saydak solo performances. Shoppin’ and Snackin’ is a blues travelogue that might’ve achieved some notoriety if it hadn’t been for the immature lyrics about scoring heroin. Swanee River Boogie completes the digital edition of Set Me Free, and it’s a nice jumping rendition of Stephen Fosters’ “Old Folks At Home”, but feels more suited to a minstrel show or Scott Joplin convention than a Chicago Blues record. Indeed, the listener will need to look closely to see that Steve Freund is conspicuously absent from these last four CD tracks, and as it turns out, they were recorded separately after Freund had parted ways with the band. In an all too common tale, after a brief tour, internecine struggles for position within the Blueprints led to their early demise. Delmark’s decision to include these four tracks is understandable; two of them feature Hardiman on vocals backed by The Blueprints, and two feature the excellent keyboard work of Saydak, but the liner notes are a bit incomplete in noting this.


Happily, all involved are still making music: Freund is now an anchor of the San Francisco blues community,; Saydak, always in demand, is now based in Denver; Hardiman is hitting the festivals with Johnny Kilowatt out of Iowa City; Terson and Stroger OWN the bass chair in Chicago’s current scene. Eddie Turner has enjoyed a long career in music and still plays in local bands, however, he is now dedicating much of his time to helping inner city kids lead productive lives as a coordinator at “Off The Streets Club” a boys and girls club located in Garfield Park on Chicago’s West Side.


Delmark’s reissue of this 1983 Razor Records release is an enjoyable journey back into Chicago’s rich blues heritage, conjuring up memories of intimate joints like Lilly’s, Blue Chicago and B.L.U.E.S. on a Saturday night for some, for others serving as a reminder just how much terrific music remains to be discovered. In all, it’s a very worthy Delmark reissue that’s guaranteed not to disappoint. It’s about as honest and true as the blues gets from start to finish. Any collection would be remiss to exclude it.


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