The Chicago Bluesmasters,
Chicago Blues Harmonica Project:
More Rare Gems

(Severn, 2009)

Steve Guyger,
Radio Blues
(Severn, 2008)

These are two exceptionally fine albums, steeped in the tradition of 1960s-style Chicago blues. In that golden era, echoes of the music's Deep South roots still could be heard even as blues was evolving into a hard-edged big-city sound. By the end of that decade, owing at least in part to the "discovery" of electric blues by young English rock stars, blues-rock -- stressing technique over feeling -- would be born. It would not be a uniformly happy development.

On Chicago Blues Harmonica Project and Radio Blues, though, the news is all good, the performances focused and soulful. Harmonica is as much a blues instrument as guitar or piano, and here we are reminded that the blues history of that instrument does not end with Little Walter, Big Walter, the two Sonny Boy Williamsons, Junior Wells, James Cotton, Billy Branch and the rest.

Project features a five-member band backing a revolving lineup of working, mostly African-American harmonica players who otherwise record, if at all, under their own names on their own labels. (One of them, Little Arthur Duncan, died in August 2008.) They're not exactly household names even by blues standards -- Harmonica Hinds, Charlie Love, Reginald Cooper, Jeff Taylor, Big D and Russ Green. All, however, have put in time and paid dues on the circuit, honing their chops and finding their place on a scene with the most exacting standards.

The result is the fiercely tough-minded sound that gives Chicago blues its distinctive personality. It's not for the faint of heart, and along with getting the blood to rush to your head, it'll make you strong. And it will remind you, as the best music in any genre always does, why you liked the stuff in the first place. If these guys are obscure, it's not because they deserve to be.

Harmonica player Steve Guyger, a Philadelphia resident by geography, a Chicago bluesman at heart, last recorded solo a decade ago. An esteemed master of the unadorned Windy City style, he's played in bands alongside giants like Cotton, Jimmy Rogers and Louisiana Red. He can sing, too, in the oddly comforting rough-and-tumble, countrified vocal manner.

Over 53 generous minutes of Radio Blues (a tribute to the sort of music he heard over that instrument in the late 1950s and early '60s), he celebrates the ghetto-joint blues in all its variety -- everything from shuffles to the occasional hints of Latin rhythms and early rock 'n' roll -- and accents; note the fully absorbed Little Walter influence on "Let Me Hang Around." You'll play this disc a lot. I know I have.

review by
Jerome Clark

5 June 2010

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