Guitarist John Primer’s apprenticeship in Chicago blues included a stint at Theresa’s in the 70s and 80s, under the watchful eye of master fret man Sammy Lawhorn, and subsequent gigs with Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, and Magic Slim. Since striking out on his own in the 90s, he’s stayed true to his south-side roots–and since 1998, when he recorded It’s a Blues Life (Wolf), he’s been making some of the rawest and most vital music of his career. His meaty vocal timbre, Delta-inflected enunciation, and dexterous slide work prove he listened carefully during his time with Waters, and some of the album’s straight-ahead shuffles–Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “Empty Arms,” Albert King’s “Can’t You See What You’re Doin’ to Me,” and Primer’s own “Sweet as a Georgia Peach,” which echoes Elmore James–chug along with the buoyant pugnaciousness of his work with Magic Slim & the Teardrops. His guitar leads combine shimmering clarity and gutsy aggression, as they always have, but even more impressive is his ability to make the tried-and-true sound fresh, like he does with a take of Dixon’s “I’ve Been Abused”: though Howlin’ Wolf rasped his famous version like a grizzled, broken-down veteran, Primer hollers out the tune with brio, like he’s showing off a Purple Heart. The best news from It’s a Blues Life, though, is the addition of harmonica ace Steve Bell to Primer’s band. On J.B. Lenoir’s “Mama Talk to Your Daughter,” a longtime Magic Slim showstopper, Primer’s caustic slide and tubular-toned single-string leads spar with the harpist’s upper-register squalls; like the guitarist, Bell respects the structural boundaries of straightforward postwar Chicago blues but still manages to improvise with extraordinary imagination. On the record he even brings new life to one of the music’s most overroasted chestnuts, Little Walter’s “Last Night”: he kicks off his solo with a series of crisp chirps and warbles reminiscent of Big Walter Horton; then, in a nod to his father and mentor, Carey Bell, he segues into a succession of stutter-tongued bursts and a brief vocal whoop. And when Primer and Bell play acoustically, as they did at a spellbinding Blues Festival set in June, it makes you wonder why they so rarely unplug in a club setting–they achieve a synergy that recalls the duo of Big Walter and Johnny Young, intertwining in complex rhythmic and melodic filigrees, matching each other change for change and pulse for pulse. Friday and Saturday, 9:30 PM, Kingston Mines, 2548 N. Halsted; 773-477-4646. Sunday, 9 PM, Famous Dave’s, 739 N. Clark; 312-266-2400.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Paul Natkin.