A whiff of violence, a touch of grace: Magic Slim and John Primer play both ends of the blues | Music Review | Chicago Reader

A whiff of violence, a touch of grace: Magic Slim and John Primer play both ends of the blues 

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One of the most profound and beautiful things about the blues is its acknowledgment of the synergy between opposites. At its best, the blues celebrates and understands that pain and joy, violent aggression and expressions of love (especially sexual love), and hopelessness and faith complement one another as elements of a single whole. An artist or an art form committed to exploring one of these polarities will inevitably end up contemplating its opposite as well.

Throughout blues history these dualities have been manifested in the music's most influential figures. In the early days, the haunted fury of Robert Johnson's vision and the burning emotionalism of Charley Patton stood in sharp contrast against the wistful ruminations of Blind Blake or the tent-show flamboyance of the Mississippi Sheiks and their jug-band contemporaries; later on, as the music followed the great migration to Chicago and took on a new urban identity, the sly, gently-understated innuendo of Tampa Red and the warmly optimistic exuberance of John Lee (Sonny Boy) Williamson provided both a musical base and an emotional counterpart to what followed: the primal power of Howlin' Wolf, the brooding ruminations of early Muddy Waters, and the searing intensity of Elmore James and the others who made their mark in the mid-50s Chicago blues heyday.

Only an extraordinarily gifted artist or band can encompass both ends of this existential spectrum at one time. In recent years, Chicago's Magic Slim has teamed up with fellow guitarist John Primer to create music that, at its best, fuses a violent aggressiveness unmatched since Howlin' Wolf with a shimmering melodic sensitivity passed down from some of the most influential guitar masters of Chicago blues. As they and their band, the Teardrops, develop, local audiences are witnessing a creative process as old as the blues itself and as fresh and original as the latest song. At B.L.U.E.S. on Halsted last weekend, this act of creation and balance was on full display.

Primer was second guitarist in Muddy Waters's last working band, and before that he worked in the house band at Theresa's Lounge, under the leadership of the erratic guitar genius Sammy Lawhorn. His years with Lawhorn left him with a deeply intuitive melodic imagination and an exceptionally sensitive approach to tone. His solos are developed with crispness and a sense of musical logic sadly lacking in the work of many other, better-known players. Primer's voice, imbued with nuances picked up from Waters, is expressive and versatile as well, capable of doing justice to traditional blues standards and soulful pop alike.

With the added musical dimension of Primer and new drummer Michael Scott, Magic Slim's music has grown into full maturity. Slim has always been a powerful source of raw, unfettered blues passion. A whiff of violence continually lurks at the fringes of his music: his lyrics sing of anger, vengeance, sexual conquest, and betrayal, and he wrenches screaming notes from his guitar with a majestic fury, physically looming over the instrument like a colossus, channeling all the power and energy of his immense 300-pound frame into his music.

This contrast, between Slim's raw energy and Primer's graceful sensitivity, is the essence of the blues at its most profound. It is evident in everything the band plays. At B.L.U.E.S., Primer kicked things off with a series of instrumentals featuring solos that made clear the influence of Lawhorn with their shimmering purity and melodic so-phistication. Primer is almost as fast as Slim, but has a light, deft touch that incorporates the most basic elements of blues tradition even as it ventures into more pop-oriented, post-R & B ideas.

John Primer is the only guitarist Slim has ever had who can carry his full share of the vocal duties. His voice, though gentle and melodic, has a gritty toughness, especially evident in his treatment of traditional numbers like "See See Rider" and Blind Lemon Jefferson's "Matchbox Blues" ("Sometimes I wonder, will a matchbox hold my clothes"). He interprets even the slowest and saddest of ballads with strength, determination, and a puckish sense of humor.

When Primer comes up with an especially arresting phrase during a solo, his eyes widen in an almost childlike expression of wonder and delight at this new beauty he's discovered; his obvious mastery of his instrument is tinged with an unstated but obvious sense of awe, an acknowledgment of the majesty and power of the music. One almost expects him to humbly extend his guitar to the audience to receive the applause, as Dexter Gordon does his saxophone.

As soon as Primer introduces Slim, however, things change. The playful, celebratory atmosphere established by Primer's joyful melodic excursions and the underlying gentleness of his nature gives way to the ominous force behind the presence and personality of Magic Slim, Standing six foot eight, he swaggers slowly from backstage and strides onto the bandstand like a prizefighter, barking out commands to the other musicians and growling mock threats to the men in the audience. After a few affectionate winks to the ladies, he signals Primer, steps up to the microphone, and hits it: intense, searing notes come screaming from his guitar, the rhythm section settles into a thunderous groove, and for the next 45 minutes it's pure blues energy as Slim gets further and further into his music, still not quite hitting his stride but bringing the energy level up, bit by bit, with each song.

Slim refuses to open things up all the way for the first couple of sets. He asserts control first, taunting the audience with glimpses of what's to come, occasionally firing off a series of riffs that burn into a listener's ears like lava, then steps back a bit and settles into a medium-tempo groove. Finally, during the third or fourth set, he signals the band and things suddenly get quiet.

It's time. Slow and melancholy, the band goes into the gentle sway of one of Slim's trademark numbers, usually Little Milton's "Walking the Back Streets and Crying," or, more recently, "Jimmy," the one he used on Friday night at B.L.U.E.S. The song is a remake of the old Little Beaver hit "Joey"; it's a powerful, agonized testimonial of betrayed love that was resurrected from obscurity by Artie "Blues Boy" White a few years back and has since become popular among Chicago blues musicians.

Now Slim comes into his own, delivering the full force of his power. Slowly, arrogantly, guitar slung over one shoulder like an M- 16, he ambles up to the microphone and sings the verses in a passionate roar. Finally, he glances down at his guitar, almost as if it were an afterthought, and a transformation takes place. Suddenly the man and the guitar become not one, but two inextricably intertwined beings exploding with passion, screaming to each other in some vast, primal language of musical notes and imagery, firing out sounds in bursts of speed almost demonic in their intensity.

The climax is Slim's patented single-string vibrato, which he adapted from west-sider Magic Sam (from whom he also took his name) and has honed into a devastating musical tool. The effect is as visceral as it is musical. Slim's enormous figure fills the stage as he stands rigid, apparently transfixed, his guitar looking like a toy in his massive hands. All the energy of the overpowering, almost brutal physical mass of the man is focused into a tiny pinpoint where his hand meets the string, which quivers like a captured living thing beneath the pressure of one gigantic finger.

The sound shimmers and squirms like an electronic serpent possessed. As Slim pours it on, relentless, the entire room seems transported, energy out of control, nothing but the screaming notes searing through the air with soul-splintering intensity. The air seems shattered into pieces, then suddenly he breaks the circuit and stops as the band continues in their slow groove and people fall stunned back into their seats, as satiated and exhausted as the musicians. Slim coaxes out a few more mellow, staccato notes as the crowd takes a minute to realize what's happened. A roar of applause inevitably follows, and Slim stands regally above everything with a satisfied smirk--"Hell, that didn't even make me sweat!"

The overall effect is the closest thing to an aural orgasm one is likely to experience, and it cuts directly to the savage heart of Magic Slim's music. Whether he's shouting out the tale of "Bad Avenue" ("where the men carry shotguns and the children, they got pistols, too") or jauntily offering up his version of the traditional "Dirty Dozens," reincarnated here as "Dirty Mother for You" and featuring a riotously obscene retelling of the Creation guaranteed to give pause to both feminists and Christians, Magic Slim's music shatters barriers and violates taboos. The very room seems assaulted by the force of his music.

Primer, meanwhile, stands quietly to the side, providing a source of light and tranquillity that shines constantly through the dark swirls of Slim's hellish fury. Where Slim stalks the stage like a predator, assuming command with his physical dominance and the thundering roar of his music, Primer hugs his guitar close to his chest and coaxes out notes of silken purity, joyful imagination, and sensual delight. Either one could, and both often do, put on a thrilling blues performance alone. Together they complement and balance each other as few other contemporary musicians do; John is yin to Slim's yang, providing an affirmation of hope and eventual peace in the face of the turmoil, violence, and invasive force behind Slim's musical onslaught. The blues does more than come alive in the hands of these two contemporary masters; it reasserts its own life and is reborn in the crucible of Slim's fiery passion and the calming glow of John's musical light. It's one of the most emotion ally satisfying and exhilarating experiences to be had in modern blues.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/John Booz.

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