Live blues in Chicago today is so often a robotic and soulless product, manufactured to delight tourists, that sometimes it’s hard to believe the music once could really sound alive, purposeful, and spontaneous. Last year Delmark Records released a terrific 1976 performance by guitarist Otis Rush at Wise Fools Pub that was originally recorded for WXRT’s Unconcert series. (This was back in the days when blues was a regular part of the station’s programming mix, rather than a bit of seasoning like it is today.) This month Delmark does it again, with a live recording (also for XRT rebroadcast) by harmonica great Junior Wells. The album was recorded at the legendary south side club Theresa’s, where he was a regular presence from the late 50s until 1983, when the club became a victim of gentrification and closed.
Live at Theresa’s 1975 captures an appropriately loose performance that suggests the band was playing for a roomful of pals rather than a club packed with camera-wielding tourists. Wells delivers renditions of classics like “Messin’ With the Kid,” “Juke,” and “Snatch it Back and Hold It,” the indelible tune from Hoodoo Man Blues, his 1965 Delmark disc with guitarist Buddy Guy that featured his first stab at evincing James Brown. In fact, Brown looms heavily over the proceedings: Wells whinnies and shouts much like the Godfather of Soul, and his crack band — which featured Buddy’s brother Phil on guitar as well as Byther Smith or Sammy Lawhorn on rhythm guitar — splits the difference between swinging and funking. One thing you won’t hear is an emulation of rock music’s leaden crunch. There’s loads of amusing between-song banter, including birthday wishes for sometime Reader photographer Marc PoKempner, whose work from the out-of-print book Down at Theresa’s . . . Chicago Blues graces the CD booklet. Eight minutes or so of chatter does get in the way of the music’s flow, but this is still a pretty wonderful document; Wells is in fine form, the band conveys that sort of looseness that can’t be faked, and the recording by Ken Rasek perfectly balances presence and precision. Maybe I’m engaging in lame nostalgia, but the blues certainly sounded better 30 years ago then it does now.