Album Review: Magic Sam and Shakey Jake — Live at Sylvio’s

Maybe you don’t know who Magic Sam is. With a moniker like that, you might guess he’s a character from Willie Dixon‘s “Wang Dang Doodle.” But the blues guitarist born Samuel Gene Maghett had an album career that lasted a relatively brief twelve years, 1957 to his death in 1969. And his first album under his own name didn’t come near the end of that period, with 1967’s West Side Soul. And while he was awarded with some posthumous honors in the 1980s and ’90s, during his lifetime he enjoyed comparatively modest fame.

A live onstage tape of Magic Sam dating from sometime around 1966 (probably December, suggests Bill Dahl‘s helpful liner notes) has been released by Rock Beat Records under the title Magic Sam and Shakey Jake – Live at Sylvio’s. This date at the well-known Chicago blues club actually predated the release of Magic Sam’s first official LP. As seems so often the case, it was thanks to a European blues enthusiast – in this case, Belgian fan George Adins – that we have this set, recorded on a portable machine.

The lineup this night included Sam on electric guitar and vocals, plus Shakey Jake (Maghett’s uncle, born James Harris) on shared lead vocals and harmonica. Bassist Mack Thompson and Elmore James‘ drummer Odie Payne, Jr. rounded out the onstage lineup. The sound of the fourteen tracks (the disc also includes a short interview and two tracks from a 1969 European date) is a bit rough, but if you dig live blues, your ears will adjust soon enough.

Magic Sam and band tear through a catalog of blues standards, just about what one would expect from a blues band in a small West Side Chicago club. Lowell Fulson‘s “Reconsider Baby” gets a soulful, greasy reading. Sam tears it up on his guitar, playing lean, sinewy single notes on his guitar; he alternates between lightning fast runs and slower, bent-note licks. The backing band does what a blues band generally does: they lay down a solid backing, free of filigree.

The band swings on Junior Parker‘s “Just Like a Fish.” We can safely guess that the producers of this set edited out the between-song banter and tuning to present a tight release; as such, most of the tracks fade in at the beginning (and out at the end). All the blues tropes are here, but somehow it feels fresh; the performance never feels perfunctory. Sam and band aren’t exactly setting Sylvio’s on fire for the first few numbers on this winter 1966 night, but they are in fact turning in a heartfelt set of readings that hit the sweet spot between loose and rehearsed. Shakey Jake gets at least as much solo time as Sam (which may well explain why he gets co-billing on this set), but that’s all to the good; both are ace blues players.

The band finally settles into a fiery groove mid-set: “I Can’t Please You” is among the disc’s best numbers, with everyone firing on all cylinders; Sam’s lead vocal is especially impressive on this James Brown-ish soul/blues nugget.

Sam shouts encouragement to his bandmates throughout the otherwise instrumental “Baby Scratch My Back,” the closest this lot gets to pop on this disc; more than anything else, on this track they sound like Chicago blues fetishists Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac. The band really cooks on Albert Collins‘ “Backstroke.” Perhaps it’s a function of the raw sound quality that makes the instrumental numbers among the most exciting on this disc.

By July 1967 Sam was in the studio working on his debut LP; the sole number performed on this night that ended upon that set was his original “All Your Love,” the original version of which was his first single back in ’57. The remaining studio cuts were mostly cover of blues standards, but not the ones he played this night at Sylvio’s. So Live at Sylvio’s is the only place to hear Magic Sam perform most of these tunes. Don’t worry about the fidelity (which isn’t really bad at all); instead, pour yourself a scotch, close your eyes and pretend you’re in a dark corner st Sylvio’s, enjoying a tasty set from Magic Sam and his band.

Follow “the_musoscribe” on Twitter and get notified
when new features, reviews and essays are published.