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Music Review: Junior Wells – Live at Theresa’s 1975.

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Electric blues in this day and age is, I think we can all agree, about ritual rather than absolute novelty. A good night in a blues bar in Chicago or for that matter in Kiev is about going to the familiar source, reconnecting with the trinity of I-IV-V, with the familiar language of the twelve bars, the bent note, the repeated phrase, and the sweet release of finding company in blackest misery. The blues structure is as well known, as dear and familiar to its devotees, as the Mass is to lifelong Catholics. Sure, okay, all the songs sound alike – it’s the ritual that counts.

But what ritual! The rhythms don’t always change much and the melodies don’t either, but that’s not the point. The point is the astonishing amount of energy, of feeling, of meaning a good player can put into one little moan, one note, one line that skids right across the song without regard for the form or the changes, that makes you want to stand up and holler right along. That’s where the originality comes in – a good blues player can find something new for you in material you know by heart. A good band on a good night can do practically anything and leave you wrung out, serene, and (for a little while anyway) all right with the world.

So, sure yeah all right, to non-believers the blues sounds like the same basic thing over and over again. But then again, so is sex, and I don’t see many folks getting tired of that. And like sex, (wait, John… so you contend the blues is like sex? How novel!), it’s all about the moment. That band, on that night, in that room, is going to put on a show and try to make some magic happen.

Case in point: Delmark has just released Live at Theresa’s 1975 by the great Junior Wells, a legendary blues harpist and certified magician, that shows why he was considered one of the Chicago’s all-time finest. Wells was a prototypical harp player (that’s “harmonica”) in the Chicago mold, blowing riffs and phrases through a warm and fuzzy microphone that muddies up the sound and buffs the sharp edges off the harmonica’s shrill sound. When he was on, his playing was incredibly thrilling, one of the definitive sounds of the Chicago style.

Wells was a regular at Theresa’s Tavern, a now-defunct venue on Chicago’s South Side, and Theresa’s doesn’t have the swing-for-the-fences atmosphere of a big festival show. According to the archives of the Chicago Reader, Wells and his band played Theresa’s at least fifteen times in June of that year, so it’s safe to say that Wells felt at home in the venue. So rather than being a big-budget spectacle, Live at Theresa’s, which was originally recorded for broadcast on Chicago’s WXRT, captures Wells and his band in a relaxed mood, hanging out for a late night of blues and casual profanity and whipping off a gem-studded set designed solely to entertain the good people of the greater Chicago metropolitan area.

Wells got his early start in Muddy Waters’ band, but by the mid-1960s had migrated to a slicker, smoother sound. He was probably an early influence on James Brown’s move to funk, and sometimes took heat for the R&B sound of some of his compositions.

On , Wells opens with his hit “Snatch it Back and Hold It,” a slick and bubbling workout that features great guitar work from journeymen Phil Guy and Byther Smith and a vocal contribution from Wells that definitely invites comparisons to the Godfather of Soul. From there, Wells and the band pan out to cover a lot of Chicago Blues territory, turning out polished numbers, roadhouse crawls, and more than a few tracks (notably “Love Her With A Feeling” and the instrumental “Juke”) either written or inspired by Muddy Waters. The set as a whole rambles from style to style and song to song, as Wells holds court in a supremely casual mood; ‘let’s do this one, next we’re gonna try this.’ In the hands of lesser musicians this kind of set would never catch fire. That’s not a problem here.

The music is broken up by plenty of stage patter; some of it rambles, some of it is downright filthy, and all of it is priceless. Junior’s just hanging out, his friends are in the house, and he has business to transact right then and there. And although some of the between-song talk is of dubious historical importance, it’s a thankful thing that Delmark made the decision to preserve it, because it really makes the show. It was some guy’s birthday that night, so the band does a little bit of “Happy Birthday” and then joshes the birthday boy about being a virgin. Somebody’s Jewish. Or not; maybe it’s Junior, or so he claims. Or not. Junior denies being a blues singer and introduces “Come On This House” as a Perry Como number. Junior starts telling a story that turns out to be the first line of a song. Great, great stuff.

Musically, highlights include all the aforementioned tracks, plus an eight-minute version of the standard “Goin’ Down Slow” and a set-closing version of Wells’ “Messin’ With The Kid” that, although the band is totally out of tune and ragged by that point, is the exact sound of a pie-eyed and happy last call.

Overall, the album captures a great band on a good night at a good club, and, you know what? That’s enough. Sure, the blues is three chords over and over again, but that only matters if you’re not a believer. Live at Theresa’s shows one of the finest blues musicians of all times in his element, relaxed and hanging out with nothing to prove, making magic just for the hell of it.

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