There’s a common misconception that all blues sounds pretty much the same. Two new re-issues on Delmark, both live recordings, show just how disparate and diverse the blues really are.
Of the two artists in question, Junior Wells is probably the better known. Coming up during the golden years of Chicago blues, he worked for years with Buddy Guy, experiencing his own creative renaissance with a series of late-career discs on the Telarc label. Here he fronts the band he started out with – the famous Aces – for a hard-hitting yet exuberant set captured in Boston in 1966.
Fame, alas, came late to Floyd McDaniel. He recorded his very first disc in 1994, and passed away at the age of eighty just before recording a follow-up. West Side Baby, with McDaniel backed by Dave Specter’s superbly swinging Bluebirds, finds Floyd in an urbane mood, strolling with jaunty ease through a set of jump blues with elegance and aplomb.
Wells was an innovator and a true original, and here he’s at the height of his powers, supremely confident, improvising and ad-libbing with relaxed assurance. McDaniel, in contrast, is an interpreter, prefacing many of the tunes here with a “this is how so-and-so did it” introduction, revealing himself to be a bit of a musical chameleon in the process. Wells’ delivers down-‘n’-dirty blues infused with menace and danger, the kind of raucous yet impeccably tight grooves that keep a club’s dance floors full. McDaniel and company are strictly uptown, their blues infused with sophisticated, jazzy chords, a smooth champagne sound in contrast to Wells’ beer-and-whiskey rawness.
The Wells set, captured shortly after the release of his groundbreaking classic, Hoodoo Man Blues, finds him working with his all-time favorite backing ensemble (guitarist Dave Myers, bassist Louis Myers, and drummer Fred Below), a unit almost telepathically in tune with Wells’ own musical direction. They deliver lean, tough blues, the kind heard in bars where the band is close enough to touch, unpretentious and with a decidedly dangerous edge. Wells is loose and relaxed, a showman who’s thoroughly at home as the life of the party. The set list includes a handful of songs that have since become chestnuts, though they were relatively new tunes at the time – “Worried Life Blues,” “Look On Yonder’s Wall,” “Got My Mojo Workin’,” and the tune that ultimately became Well’s signature song – “Messin’ With The Kid.” They’re all given loose, off-the-cuff performances, with the feel of a working band adapting instinctively to the leader’s spontaneity and the audience’s reaction.
Floyd McDaniel was fresh off his recording debut when his set at Germany’s Breminale Blues Night on 1994 was captured for posterity. He, too, is in fine form, though his approach is that of a mature performer, summing up a career’s worth of musical highlights with an equally classic playlist that includes chestnuts like “St. Louis Blues,” Bessie Smith’s “Backwater Blues,” “Everyday I Have The Blues,” and the almost-obligatory “Sweet Home Chicago.” There are jazzy romps through “Route 66” and Gene Ammons’ “Red Top,” as well as his own “West Side Baby.” McDaniel and Specter trade licks and leads, with Specter delivering most of the fireworks, while Tad Robinson adds understated but invariably effective harmonica here and there.
But while the sound of the two bands is decidedly different, the basic twelve-bar structure of the songs themselves is a unifying thread tying them together. Whether it’s smooth and classy (McDaniel and friends) or nasty and raw (Wells), that primal blue beat remains a potent musical mechanism. Wells and McDaniel occupied opposite ends of the blue spectrum, but both delivered music with a powerful and potent emotional punch. Either disc is a delight, but as a pair they make a fine set of bookends for the blues …