Review: Magic Sam - 'Live At The Avant Garde'

Possibly the best Magic Sam live album yet...
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Magic Sam Maghett is among the most influential bluesmen who also happens to be part of the tragic legacy of talents who left too soon. The blues world is awash in incomplete stories of artists who had so much to give and not enough time to give it, leaving fans with the bittersweet taste of gratitude for what we have and the stinging loss of the great songs and performances never to be heard.

Sam recorded a handful of singles for Cobra Records before making the jump to the great Delmark Records. He recorded two essential, landmark albums while there: West Side Soul and Black Magic, each one a stone tablet from the mountain of West Side blues. They are also where the story ends as a fatal heart attack took him from us at age 32.

His 1969 performance at the Ann Arbor Blues Festival is legendary and helped elevate his profile but the recording we have of that long remembered set is frankly just awful. There was no way of knowing we'd be deprived of opportunities to capture his raw power and passion, thus leaving blues aficionados with a cadre of live releases of varying degrees of disappointing.

Live At The Avant Garde, a recording from Milwaukee in 1968, is a welcome exception, providing what might be the best live album in his catalog. The sound quality isn't pristine and the performance not perfect but it's perhaps the best combination of clarity and execution offered to date.

He performed as a trio that night with Big Mojo Elem on bass and Bob Richey on drums. This minimalist ensemble allows us to focus on Sam's vocal mastery and distinctive guitar style (although it's a damn shame Eddie Shaw wasn't there this particular night with his saxophone). No matter- we are treated to a 16-song set featuring great covers of songs from Muddy Waters, Freddie King and Otis Rush as well as cuts from West Side Soul. We'll never get the quintessential live album we desire but this is a very good glimpse into what any given night in a small club with Magic Sam might have been like and that alone makes it a vital addition to his all too brief discography.