Over the years there have been lots of blues recordings that have been released and then forgotten. Some of them may have been eminently forgettable and so have been lost for all time without any harm being done. On the other hand there are other recordings and sides from the sixties when the blues was starting to head towards obscurity that would be a shame to lose just because of who was playing on them.
Quite a few labels have been making an effort to track down some of these old tapes and digitally re-master them for a whole new generation to hear and enjoy and to ensure their place in posterity. One of the labels that has done a fine job with this type of work has been the Belgian company Music Avenue. Not only have they preserved the music of some fine players that otherwise might have been lost, they have unearthed some rare concert tapes and made interesting packages out of two or three separate recordings.
The latest effort along those lines is called simply Chicago Blues Festival and features performances from concerts three years apart. The first ten tracks are a recording made from the 1964 festival featuring Buddy Guy and Junior Wells. The second set that's been preserved was the 1967 gig with Otis Rush playing with Little Walter.
Buddy Guy on guitar and vocals and Junior Wells on harmonica and vocals were a regular pairing, having toured and recorded together for a couple of years before this performance and sporadically afterwards until Junior's death. In 1964 they were both solidly into their solo careers after having done their requisite years as members of other people's bands. Junior had been harpist with Muddy Waters (ironically Little Walter's replacement when he left the band) while Buddy had been earning his chops as a studio player with the Chess record label.
The first four songs on this disc feature Buddy on his own singing and playing such classic pieces as "Blue Monday" and "Everyday I Get The Blues". Although the sound quality isn't the best – the vocals are occasionally muddy or too dominant at other times – you're left with no doubt as to why Eric Clapton calls him his favourite blues guitar player.
He can do most anything with that guitar of his and not even sound like he's working hard. You know how it is that sometimes just listening to a player on a disc makes you tired just listening to all the work they're having to go through to make the music? With Buddy you just get carried along as he plays, and it feels like little or no effort on his or your part.
On tracks five through ten he's joined by Junior Wells, and aside from a poorly executed attempt at the Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction" (1964 was the year it was released — yeah, that's right forty-three years ago — scary huh?) which they and the band stumble through, the rest of the set is just what you'd hope for. Junior shows you why he was considered one of the most innovative harmonica players of all time and also a really fine vocalist. Again the sound quality lets the performances down slightly, but considering this was a live concert from 1964 it's not a big deal.
The music is still hot and the chemistry between the two men is obvious as they work seamlessly together trading solos between guitar and harmonica and vocal parts. It's not often you get to hear such a talented guitar player and harmonica player together, unless of course it's the two men who share the disc with them and played the same stage three years later in 1967.
Once a night, if they know anything at all about gratitude, modern blues harpists should say a mental thank you to Little Walter for being the first person to grab a microphone to cup in his hands with the harmonica. Once he had done that he discovered all the amazing possibilities open to him via amplification for bending and sustaining notes and phrases.
It was because of this that he got picked up by Muddy Waters to play with his band, where they as a group defined what it was to be an electric blues band in the late forties and early fifties. Little Walter left so he could strike out on his own and so he could do more vocals.
The other half of the duo on stage that night, Otis Rush, was just as much an innovator as Walter. It was from Otis that Jimi Hendrix borrowed the idea of playing behind his head, and all the fast blues players of today owe him a debt for his modifications to the electric playing style.
Listen to Otis on his cover of James Brown's "I Feel Good" and although the vocal line sounds similar, he and his guitar have made it his own song. Even without the Godfather's large band behind him, Otis is able to fill all the space required by the song with just his guitar.
By 1967 Little Walter was feeling the effects of his alcoholism and was not the player he used to be (he would die in 1968 as the result of injuries sustained during a drunken street brawl) but he could still find his way around the harp. To listen to him trade solos with Otis is to hear an old master at work.
Again the sound quality isn't the best on this recording, in fact it might even be marginally worse than the earlier tracks, but it still isn't enough to detract from the marvelous performances of such classics like "Going Down Slow" and "Lovin' You All The Time".
Chicago Blues Festival provides a unique opportunity to hear and compare two of the best harp and guitar combos that the blues had produced up until that time. After listening to this disc I know that I wouldn't want to be the one asked to decide between the two duos as to which was "better'' than the other. Such a delineation isn't possible when you get up into the stratosphere where these guys existed.
Just sit back and enjoy the music, and don't ask any questions or try to come to any conclusions. Sometimes thinking can only get in the way of enjoyment and this is one of those times. Besides the blues are all about emotions anyway, so what are you thinking for?