When he passed away of a heart attack in 1969 at the age of 32, Magic Sam had only released two proper albums, including the profoundly influential West Side Soul. (His second full-fledged recording, Black Magic, was released mere days before his death). Since then there have been a handful of posthumous live releases. Live At The Avant Garde, recorded in June 1968, may be the best yet.
Despite his tragically short career, Magic Sam left an enduring legacy. A pioneer of the 'west side' sound, his stinging, choked leads and soulful vocals helped to usher in a new era; pioneers like Muddy Waters brought the blues from the plantation to the city, but it was Sam and his contemporaries who fully urbanized the music.
This set finds Sam in a trio setting with a regular working band of Big Mojo Elem on bass and Bob Richey on drums. Liner notes by recording engineer and producer Jim Charne paint a vivid picture of the time and place; a tumultuous era between the 'Summer of Love' and Woodstock, in a tiny Milwaukee club frowned upon by authorities ('the man') as a hangout for degenerate hippies. (It would succumb to the pressure and close in the fall of the year).
The Avante Garde regularly booked Chicago blues bands; work was hard to come by in the Windy City in those days, so many would make the trek north. This wasn't a planned recording date, and Sam didn't even know until he arrived that tape would be rolling that night. The equipment was primitive by today's standards, and the sound is certainly less than pristine, but Sam's vocals and guitar are prominent, and the sheer life and exuberance of a hot band on a hot night are amply evident.
Only four of Magic Sam's own compositions are included, but they show how strong a writer he was - "Bad Luck Blues," "You Belong To Me," "That's All I Need," and "Lookin' Good," all show Sam was capable of far more than basic shuffles and grinders. The covers, standards now but no doubt less familiar to audiences of the time, include Freddie King's "San-Ho-Zay," Junior Parker's "Feelin' Good," Don Robey's "Don't Want No Woman," and Willie Dixon's immortal "Hoochie Coochie Man," as well as tunes from Otis Rush ("All Your Love (I Miss Loving)"), Muddy himself (the deep blues of "Still A Fool"), and Jimmy Rogers ("That's All Right").
Sam understood the power of brevity, and here he proves himself a hard-working entertainer, his solos concise and each tune tightly focused, with virtually no downtime between songs. He's in his element, clearly having a great ol' time - his star, alas, was very much on the rise, and his future must have seemed bright. His sadly slender recorded legacy shows what a great loss his untimely death truly was. Any addition to that legacy is welcome. This one's essential.