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December 2004

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Son Seals
Live and Burning
Alligator Records

Son Seals

Way back in the early 70’s, Bruce Iglauer was sweeping up at the Jazz Record Mart one night when the phone rang.  It was Wesley Race, one of Iglauer’s friends and a huge fan of the blues, calling from the Flamingo Club on the South Side of Chicago.  When Iglauer picked up the phone, Race told him to listen and turned the phone receiver toward the bandstand.  What Iglauer heard completely transformed his Alligator Records label.  The label was originally intended to be a one-shot deal for Iglauer to record his favorite blues act, Hound Dog Taylor.  Hearing this new act eventually contributed to making Alligator the most prominent, and prolific, blues label of the past thirty years.  The fiery lead guitar and raw, intense vocals Iglauer heard belonged to Son Seals.  Iglauer eventually recorded Seals in 1973, which led to seven more releases on Alligator, and Seals was hailed as one of the most original blues artists to emerge in years.

No one asked me, but if they did, my favorite live blues disc, bar none, of all time would have to be 1978’s Live and Burning, Seals‘ third Alligator release.  The first time I popped this baby into my cassette player 16 years ago, I knew it would be my favorite as long as I had breath in my body.  When I made the dreaded transition from cassettes to CDs several years later, the first duplicate purchase (owned on both cassette and CD) I made was Live and Burning for the following reasons. 

  • No live disc captured the raw Chicago sound of the 70’s better.  This disc was recorded at the Wise Fools Pub, familiar stomping grounds for the band, and there were likely lots of old friends present.  Seals’ guitar work is simply incredible and his vocals are equally impressive.   His enthusiasm is almost palpable, and the intensity never lets up.  Seals roars out of the gate with a scorching cover of Elmore James’ “I Can’t Hold Out” and after four minutes of pedal-to-the-metal guitar, he slows things down for a simmering version of Lloyd Glenn’s “Blue Shadows Falling”.  Despite the tempo change, the energy level stays the same.  By the time he launches into “Funky Bitch” and “The Woman I Love,” you know the audience had to have been hooked, because you are hooked from just listening.  Of the nine songs, six are covers of mostly familiar songs, but you would never know it by Seals’ vibrant delivery of each.   They sound nothing like the original versions.

  • The band, featuring Lacy Gibson on second guitar, Snapper Mitchum doing yeoman’s work on bass, drummer Tony Gooden (who would perish in a train wreck during a European tour several years later), and sax man extraordinaire A. C. Reed (augmented on one track by Alberto Gianquinto on piano), is outstanding.  If a well-oiled machine played music, this is what it would sound like.  These guys played with Son for years and it’s obvious they knew each other’s every move.

  • As the listener, you actually feel like you’re part of the audience, down to the obnoxiously loud fan who whoops it up between the first two or three songs, complete with an off-key rebel yell and cackling laughter.  (Note: This is the guy who is usually standing next to me at 85% of the shows or festivals I’ve ever attended.  Fortunately he can‘t be heard throughout the rest of the set.  Apparently the alcohol must have kicked in by then.)  During the proceedings, Son actually tells another fan to stop bothering him.  “Can’t you see I’m working up here?” He growls to the delight of the audience.  In fact, the audience contributes to the sheer energy of the performance so much that they should probably be listed as part of the band.

When the band rips through “Hot Sauce” to close things out, you feel like you’ve been a part of the whole thing.  That’s what the best live discs in any genre make you feel and Live and Burning fits the bill perfectly.  Seals would do other live discs (a hard-to-find set from the 80’s on the old Blues R&B label is worth finding, and another Alligator live set in the late 90‘s), but both paled in comparison to Live and Burning, which captures a blues man at the top of his game. 

-- Graham Clarke

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