Jr. Wells
Live at Buddy Guy's Legends
Telarc 83412
From his humble Delta roots to his current status as a Chicago blues icon, Jr. Wells' stirring, soulful vocals and distinct harmonica work are now known worldwide. Recent major health crises -- the double-whammy of lymphatic cancer and a debilitating heart attack -- have stilled Wells' Mississippi sax, and his major performing and recording days seem behind him.

Which leaves us with Live at Buddy Guy's Legends, which includes all the essential onstage elements: an appreciative Chicago audience, a dynamic band and frontperson Wells. And, as usual, Telarc's impeccable, 20-bit digital audio technology brings the whole thing into your listening space with remarkable presence.

Considered alongside Wells' other in-concert outings over his long and well-recorded career, however, Live at Legends doesn't match up. There's scant evidence of the urgency and visceral energy of the remarkable 1966 Vanguard album, It's My Life, Baby. Recorded at Pepper's Lounge in Chicago, a young Wells is captured singing with passionate abandon accompanied by a band of his peers fully involved in the tension-release emotive energies of blues at its best.

And there's little of the rich and powerful vocal delivery available on the 1977 Buddy Guy and Jr. Wells Live at Montreux set on Evidence, where a more seasoned Wells displays his command of his harp and vocal talents. In both these settings, Delta and Chicago peers Buddy Guy, Jimmy Johnson, Fred Below, et al, give strength and life to the music.

The band this time is tight and professional, but it lacks that extra measure of magic that flared so brilliantly in the earlier recordings. They are almost too perfect, rendering pristine versions of familiar blues vehicles, a perfunctory "Got My Mojo Working," a smooth "Messin' With the Kid." Not too much in the way of down-and-dirty or in-the-alley sensations coming from the nine-piece outfit, which at times sonically overwhelms Wells' plaintive harp runs.

In a curious choice of recent material, Merle Haggard and Bonnie Owens' "Today I Started Loving You Again" is selected over seemingly choicer cuts like the funky "Do a Little Something for Yourself" (from 1993's Better Off With the Blues") or the well-rendered Tracy Chapman blues hit "Give Me One Reason."

The shortfall comes in that it follows Come on in This House, one of Wells' career high points, and news of his illnesses. Mildly recommended, with the advisory to check out the above-mentioned offerings as well.

-- Tali Madden

This page and all contents are © 1998 by Blues Access,
Boulder, CO, USA.