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Live At The Avant Garde


Magic Sam Live at the Avante Garde CD art

By Bill Dahl

            In the decades following his depressingly premature demise of a heart attack at age 32 in December of 1969, a surprisingly substantial number of live recordings by West Side blues guitar legend Magic Sam have surfaced on an array of labels. None has been less than inspired from a musical standpoint (Sam Maghett was seemingly incapable of a subpar performance, whether playing a West Side hole-in-the-wall or a massively attended European blues festival), but many were recorded in less than ideal circumstances from an aural perspective.


That’s definitely not the case with Live At The Avant Garde. Its sonic qualities shimmer and sparkle as brightly as the slashing blues cooked up by Sam and his eminently solid rhythm section, bassist Big Mojo Elem and drummer Bob Richey. High school senior/budding engineer Jim Charne set up his tape recorder, outfitted with several pro quality mics, on the evening of June 22, 1968 at the Avant Garde, a counterculture coffee house located in Milwaukee that often booked Chicago blues stalwarts, and did a superlative job of capturing the full stereo spectrum of sounds that Sam and his cohorts laid down that memorable night (Charne also contributes the CD’s informative liner notes).


 Ripping through a non-stop barrage of well-chosen covers and a handful of his own compositions, the startlingly inventive guitarist gave it everything he had with his stripped-down rhythm section. Bobby Bland’s “I Don’t Want No Woman,” Little Junior Parker’s rollicking “Feelin’ Good,” B.B. King’s “I Need You So Bad,” Jimmy McCracklin’s “Every Night, Every Day,” Junior Wells’ “Come On In This House,” Freddy King’s prototypical West Side instrumental “San-Ho-Zay,” and Lowell Fulson’s “It’s All Your Fault Baby” were longtime favorites of his, but the dazzling presence of Otis Rush’s “All Your Love (I Miss Loving)” (he keeps it in minor-key rhumba mode all the way, eschewing the jump passage), Muddy Waters’ “Still A Fool,” and B.B.’s obscure instrumental “Hully Gully Twist” illustrate how Sam frequently shook up his set list, contributing to this disc’s must-have status for his legion of fans.


Singular as his musical approach had been ever since his emergence on the Cobra label a little more than a decade earlier, Sam apparently didn’t worry about his freshly penned songs being appropriated by other blues acts. He played his new hard-driving original “You Belong To Me” at the Avant Garde but wouldn’t get around to cutting it in the studio for more than four months until work on his encore LP Black Magic had commenced. Naturally, material from his then-current Delmark debut set West Side Soul was showcased for the Wisconsinites; the soul-tinged “That’s All I Need” and his frisky finger-busting signature instrumental workout “Lookin’ Good” are but two of the set’s many highlights.


Even if your CD shelf is as loaded with priceless live Magic Sam performances as mine is, Live At The Avant Garde is an imperative acquisition for anyone who loves the sound of stinging West Side blues as rendered by its eternal favorite son.                    ###                                                   

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