The Jim Liban Blues Combo
Live at Ronnieís
Just a few hours north of Chicago, the blues scenes in Milwaukee and Madison have been a vibrant, if often overlooked, Wisconsin secret for more than two decades. These cities have developed some stellar players, and many have been plucked away by some of the best-known blues acts, including Luther Allison, Jimmy Rogers, Jimmie Vaughan, Mike Morgan, the T-Birds and others.
Jim Liban is the reigning harp player in Milwaukee, and although he toured the Midwest and both coasts for 15 years fronting his band, Shortstuff, heís generally kept close to home, all the while developing a word-of-mouth reputation as one of the "great undiscovered" on his instrument. Heís best known outside of Milwaukee as a fine writer, penning songs for John Mayall, Johnny Winter and the Legendary Blues Band, among others, and his live set list has long been built around his own songs.
On this casual set, recorded live and direct-to-disc, heís taken a look back at favorite tunes by some of his influences ó Little Walter, Willie Dixon, Detroit Jr. and Pee Wee Crayton. The result is one of the finer releases of the year, ranking in many ways with Kim Wilsonís My Blues for Liban and the bandís unique take on a group of thoroughly familiar classics.
Both of these releases are great because they remain true to the spirit and feel of the songs chosen, but the playing and arrangements are fresh and exciting, proving that even the most familiar blues songs come alive in the right hands.
Liban has a firm handle on each of the tunes ó theyíve been part of the Comboís set list for the last few years, and the fact that the band has been around for almost 10 years means the playing is incredibly tight and empathetic. He takes Jimmy Rogerís "That Ainít It" and gives it a Jimmy Reed/Rick Estrin type feel ó relaxed and humorous ó punctuating it with a thoroughly original harmonica solo.
In fact, outstanding soloing is found everywhere, especially the harp work on "Tonight With a Fool" (with a growling vocal through the harp mic) and "Donít Mess With the Messer," the latter indicative of Libanís debt to Jr. Wells. (Liban is one of the few players working today who seems to have captured much of the bite and playfulness of Wellís best harp work, and heís taken it one step further in his own voice on the instrument.)
Not to overlook the very solid playing of bassist Dave Kasik and drummer Steve Dougherty. These guys are locked tight, and Kasikís fluid style allows Daugherty ample room for terrific support and lead playing. They are especially effective on the three instrumentals, where itís obvious they have studied Myers, Below, Guy and the other pioneers who made Horton, Jacobs, Wells and others that much greater on harmonica. "Blues After Hours" is a prime example of the interweaving action among all four, especially between Liban and Dougherty, sweeping and diving together on the songís final passages.
This is Libanís first CD, although heís been playing more than 30 years. It should bring Liban some of the credit he deserves, and perhaps the impetus to put down more music on disc, including some of the original compositions heís become known for.
ó Tom Ellis III