It's not often that you run across a Blues musician who writes as many instrumental numbers as he does songs. That seems to be especially true of guitar players as those instrumentals that have been written in the genre seem to have been predominately for piano. Perhaps it's because of the tradition of instrumental pieces for piano predates the Blues with Ragtime, or simply because the 88 keys on the piano allows for a diversity of sound that a guitar just can't match.
Whatever the reason, you don't often see and hear what's on offer on Dave Specter's latest releases on Delmark Records, Dave Specter Live In Chicago. Available in both DVD and CD format, Live In Chicago was shot and recorded over two nights in August 2007 during performances at two of Chicago's renowned Blues bars; Rosa's Blues Lounge on Aug 20, 2007 and Buddy Guy's Legends on the 21st.
Each night saw Dave and his band of Marty Binder on drums, Brother John Kottke on Keyboards, and Harlan Terson on bass being joined by guest vocalists. At Buddy Guy's they were joined by singer/harmonica player Tad Robinson and the great Jimmy Johnson, while the night before over at Rosa's, Sharon Lewis came out to handle the singing chores. On top of offering up some dandy instrumental pieces of his own composition, Dave showed his versatility by being equally at home with each of his guests and their individual styles.
The disc opens with quite a long instrumental, a medley of two Specter tunes "Boss Funk/Riverside Drive," that clocks it at close to eight minutes. Quite remarkably you don't notice the length of the piece as Dave and the band show themselves to have a deft hand with melody and beat. It could very easily have become an exercise in tedium if they had let themselves get sucked into the seductive Funk rhythm, but Dave not only performed a variety of solos throughout the piece, each time he came back to the main melody he'd make some subtle alterations that would change it up to sustain our interest.
His first guest, Tad Robinson sang three of his own compositions and accompanied himself on harmonica, I'm not sure whether I liked his style of music all that much, but there was no denying either his talent on the harmonica or his ability to sing. It's just that I found his music lacked the intensity that I prefer from the Blues. Of the three tracks he performed, his cover of Tom T. Hall's ,"How I Got To Memphis" was the most interesting. Very much a Country Blues song, it seemed to inspire a little more passion in Tad, which made for better performances all round.
Following Tad on stage at Buddy's was Jimmy Johnson who immediately set the tone for his set by playing a charged version of the Jimmy Rogers' tune "Out On The Road." Jimmy is a traditional Chicago electric Blues player, who also happened to be one of Dave's original teachers when he started out on his Blues career. So the two men are naturally very familiar with each others playing styles. Perhaps that explains why this set was that much more exciting, although Dave had recorded with Tad Robinson as well,
What was clear right from the moment Jimmy started playing was that he was an old friend of the Blues and knew just what to do when, to make a song work. With him on stage the band and Dave seemed to pick up the intensity and the music became a little more fun to listen to. Jimmy doesn't have the greatest of voices or play the best guitar, but he has that intangible quality that makes the Blues work. There was rawness to his sound that made the songs he performed just sound that much more "Blue."
When the show moved back in time a day to the gig at Rosa's the band opened with two of Dave's instrumentals, "The Hollywood Park Shuffle" and "Is What Is" before they were joined on stage by vocalist Sharon Lewis. Two of the songs Sharon sung were of her own composition, although I suspect the third, "Angel", was more her lyrics to an older tune as the music sounded familiar even though I didn't recognize the words.
I had never heard Sharon sing before, and in fact hadn't even heard of her before listening to this disc; as far as I'm concerned the fact that I hadn't is another example of how screwed up the music business is. Here's this amazing singer; passionate, funny, with great stage presence, and on top of which she writes her own material, still playing the bar scene in Chicago while schlock merchants like Celine Dion are making a fortune in Las Vegas. There's definitely something wrong with that picture as far as I'm concerned.
One of the things that was really amazing about Dave Specter's guitar playing was how well he was able to adjust to each of the people he was accompanying without ever once looking or sounding like he was making any adjustments at all. No matter what style of music was being played he was able to handle it effortlessly. Even more impressive was how he could be both the centre of attention and play a support role on stage with equal poise.
A lot of guitar players who spend most of their time playing for other people lack the charisma to be a front person, especially when they are predominantly instrumentalists. Dave Spectre plays with such poise and authority that he has sufficient presence onto himself that he and his band are a pleasure to watch and listen to without the need for vocalist. Even though Live In Chicago features the talent of three other lead performers through out the course of the recording, you are never in doubt that it is Dave's show.
As is usual for a Delmark DVD release the sound and audio are great. There are sufficient cameras that they have all the shooting angles you can think of covered, and some you wouldn't have thought of. This included some great close-ups on both Brother John Kottke's hands during piano solos and Dave's fingers working his fret board. While there's no difference between the quality of sound on the CD, the DVD comes with a couple of extra bonus tracks; one each from Jimmy Johnson and Sharon Lewis.
Dave Specter Live In Chicago on either CD or DVD is yet another example of why Delmark records at 55 years old are still going strong: Great music and great recordings are a combination that can't be beat.