Otis Rush burst onto the Chicago blues recording scene in 1956 with one of the most powerful, agonized sounds ever captured on vinyl. With a saxophone groaning in the background and his splintered chording and jagged leads skittering beneath his tormented vocals, he created a music that was at once more sophisticated and more primal than anything else being done in Chicago at the time.

Conforming to the dictates of the recording industry, Rush tended to release 45s that consisted of a ballad or pop tune on one side and an impassioned blues on the other. Even with this constraint he managed to produce a series of recordings for the Cobra label that remains a standard by which blues excellence is judged: “All Your Love,” “Double Trouble,” “My Love Will Never Die,” “Groaning the Blues,” “Keep On Loving Me Baby.” As the rhythm section moaned convulsively in the background, Rush sang with the trembling fervor of a condemned man on his way to hell, and his guitar spit fire and ice. Like Robert Johnson before him, Rush sang with the voice of a man possessed by demons.

Cobra folded in 1959. Rush’s later output was admirable and occasionally brilliant (“So Many Roads, So Many Trains”), but he could never consistently reproduce the early fusion of primal power and youthful exuberance.

Rush also developed a reputation as a moody, unpredictable performer, as likely to sulk his way through an uninspired set of noodling as to galvanize a crowd. His trailblazing music, however, was not forgotten: both his vocal style and his unique arpeggio-laden guitar technique were major influences in the British blues “revival” of the 60s, even though Rush himself was languishing on the edge of obscurity.

These days Rush’s on-again, off-again career consists primarily of local gigs and an occasional nationwide or overseas tour. He’s as unpredictable as ever. Not long ago he showed up at a local club and proceeded to sing through the first set without touching his guitar. The next night he sat on the edge of the stage, his guitar out of tune, and meandered through “Wonder Why,” one of his instrumental signature pieces. Then he abruptly returned to his dressing room. A few weeks later he returned to the same venue and tore through an incendiary set of up-tempo house rockers interspersed with minor-key classics from the Cobra era.

Contrary to the stereotype of the tormented bluesman singing his sorrows away, Rush seems to be at his best only when he’s relaxed and happy. This brings an odd tension to his performances. The racked emotionality that marked his classic pieces seems to lurk beneath a calm, almost velvet surface–especially in his guitar playing, which maintains its fierceness even when he’s evoking the most romantic sentiments. His voice has also become gentler over the years, adding to the feel of haunted tenderness that permeates his music.

But make no mistake–Rush can still bring more deep blues feel to a rowdy barn burner than most bluesmen can bring to a slow moan. At B.L.U.E.S. Etcetera a few weeks ago the band started off in a lightly swinging, medium-tempo groove. Rush immediately tore into a series of harsh metallic chords that splintered into a full-bodied solo. His timbre was thick, and the notes seemed to shimmer like mercury.

As if to atone for past sins, he dug deep into “Wonder Why” early in the first set, beginning with a jaunty feel. He soon ascended into an aching, sensual solo consisting of sustained notes that he first cut off fiercely but eventually allowed to blossom into a high shivering scream. He then plunged into a series of muddy lower-register chords and slowly worked his way back up again through graceful, teasing lines that caressed the edge of abandon.

Rush’s tendency to mask despair with an outward sense of peace was never more evident than on “Right Place, Wrong Time”–not the Dr. John song but a Rush standard from his LP of the same title on Hightone in 1971. It’s an optimistic-sounding major-key, medium-tempo ballad–with lyrics filled with fatalism and doomed resignation. At B.L.U.E.S. Etcetera Rush played it with ease, gracefully laying the sustained phrases over the band’s steady backing. Rush can make his leads sound as if they’re revolving around his sidemen’s riffs, complementing their patterns rather than blazing a new one over them.

Yet other times he’s far in front of anything anyone else is doing. He sang “Stormy Monday” in a satin-smooth croon with just a hint of the old terrified quiver, but his guitar solo brought an element of harshness to the classic ballad. His spidery chording and single-note punctuations built into a series of raw-toned chords toward the end, as if he were trying to evoke the desperation he’d only hinted at before. The tune’s sophisticated mellowness had given way to the declamatory intensity of Rush’s Chicago roots, but the transition was so subtle that you hardly knew what was happening until it was over.

The same kind of transformation took place on Percy Mayfield’s “My Jug and I.” Mayfield sang his tale of despair (“Got up this morning, got me a jug and laid back down / I was searching for the future, but the blues is all I found”) in a resigned, ironic murmur laid over a swinging horn section. Rush took Mayfield’s gentle ballad and transformed it into a grinding slow blues–harsh chords broke suddenly into heavy, fractured single-note phrases. His leads again attained an aching sensuality–at one point he teased a single note into a squirming bend over and over, creating an almost physical sensation of expectation.

But the tortured visionary of “My Love Will Never Die” or “Double Trouble,” firing off desperate guitar screams while staring wide-eyed into the depths of hell, was nowhere to be found this night. Perhaps the most perfunctory reading of the evening was “All Your Love,” one of Rush’s unforgettable Cobra classics. He played it with almost lackadaisical ease, his shimmering minor-key chords providing only faint echoes of the song’s fabled desperation. He finally showed some passion on the celebratory major-key shuffle that concludes the song–it was almost as if he didn’t want to look too deeply into the abyss and could surrender himself totally only when the music became a little more comforting.

The sense that he was skirting torment permeated most of Rush’s performance. For all the exuberance and passion he brought to his playing, he seemed detached from the emotionality of the music. With an enigmatic half smile on his lips he peered out from under his cowboy hat with heavy-lidded eyes as the notes exploded beneath his fingers.

Still, few blues guitarists can build a solo with the thrilling intensity and craftsmanship of Otis Rush. He’ll gather notes into loosely packed clusters–sensual, tubular, repeated, and teasing–then softly release them as he slides gently into middle-register counterstatements, maintaining a submerged hint of stark passion. He lays those note clusters in the midst of his progressions as if he’s trying to challenge himself: sometimes he skitters over them and moves on into the next phrase, other times he submerges himself in them, kneading and shaping them into vehicles that will lead him in another direction.

These are not the tormented screams of the Otis Rush who took the bathetic Willie Dixon composition “My Love Will Never Die” and transformed it into perhaps the most harrowing portrayal of obsessional love ever recorded. Rather they’re the inspired inventions of a man at play, a man relaxing, if only temporarily. To use Percy Mayfield’s expression, Rush plays and sings like a man with memory pain. Demonic fires may smolder just beneath the surface, a harsh intensity may underlie the joy, but for now everything is all right.

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