originally at MOG 1.23.09, now at Funk or Die ..Amazingly this set is nominated for a Grammy. Congrats to Numero..
Hardcore blues fans might bristle at some of the tracks (available only on a 2 LP set) that accompany the 128 page, 12" x 12" book that is the centerpiece of the Numero Group's latest, Grammy-worthy, act of music archiving, Light: On The South Side. Those folks would be missing the point. These funky Blues records by local Chicago artists are not Chess Records or Alligator Records, nor are they the prototype for the next British invasion. What they are is a document (called Pepper's Jukebox) that pulls together the music "grown" African-American men and women were listening and dancing to in the south side blues clubs of mid-to-late 70's Chicago.
The Same One-Little Mack Simmons
These clubs, like Pepper's Hideout, The Patio Lounge, The Checkerboard Lounge and Perv's House, were the last strongholds of the south side's club scene. These were the live music venues that, through the electric urban blues, birthed the sound that defined the post-Beatles Rock era. The late '70s, though, were not kind to these clubs, as a combination of urban decay, north side blues clubs, the decline of music in schools, disco, and funk ate away at the customer and performer base. As these clubs faded away they featured music that would become known as "down home" blues. Labels like Malaco would take these veteran artists and their soulful, funky sound and continue to sell it to African-Americans in the South and Northern enclaves like Chicago almost completely under the radar of the burgeoning worldwide (and mostly white) blues market.
Women's Lib-Lucille Spann
It was the beginning of a "new" blues that returned to the south and the end of Chicago's south side as the "real" home of the blues. The end-of an-era feeling (though there continue to be "steppers clubs" that mostly lack live music) is what this package really captures. The music is an important part of that vibe, but Michael L. Abramson's photos (over 100 of 'em) take the story to another level.
Young Blood-Detroit Junior
Abramson, a white man, snapped these photos from 1975-77. In ultra-segregated Chicago, this was fairly unusual, but his desire to document the people of the night was met with almost universal acceptance by the patrons and employees of spots he haunted on a regular basis. After a while -- because he was using these photos to further his photography career -- he stopped going. He didn't want to cheapen the genuine feeling he got from the people. In the notes he says, "Armed with my camera, I was open. I was there to take pictures, but the experience itself turned out to be more exhilarating than any image."
Bowlegged Woman,Knock Kneed Man-Bobby Rush
The black and white photos, some filling the LP sized pages of Light: On The South Side, reminded Abramson of work he'd seen by Parisian night photographer Brassai, full of shadow and mystery. Their depictions of real folks reminded me of the recent show I saw of Robert Frank's work in the '50s from his book, The Americans, or the late '70s/early '80s photography of Jamel Shabazz in his book, A Time Before Crack. Abramson was into the blues like Jamel Shabazz was into hip hop, and Frank had more than a few photos of jukeboxes, but all 3 found the heart of their culture in the faces of the audience. In Abramson's case, the photos illuminate that culture without ever showing a performer.
This Is My Prayer-Lady Margo
As Nick Hornby says (yeah, Numero doesn't play around, they got Mr. Hornby to write an essay about this release), "This is a special book, about one tiny corner of the world over a handful of evenings a long time ago; but that tiny corner of the world has, for decades now, meant a great deal to an awful lot of people scattered all over the world." So take it from Mr. Hornby, Numero 33 is a must have. Light:On The South Side is much more than a book of photos or a reissue CD.
In their short history of around 50 releases, Numero has set a very high standard and displayed an artistic flair that is pretty much unmatched in the record releasing world. I thought Number 26, Local Customs: Downriver Revival, could not be topped, and I said, "The music and images contained on these discs are more than worthy, but between the lines and frames lie deeper truths about the deterioration of the middle class, the African-American experience, and the tenuous state of the American dream. What was so strong, now seems so fragile. It's not too often a reissue package can bring you there."
Well, they did it again.
Bonus Beats and Pix
Brassai in 20's Paris
Robert Frank in 50's America
Jamel Shabazz in early 80's New York
Michael L. Abramson from the end of a Blues era, Light:On The South Side
I Learned My Lesson - Willie Davis