Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Mr. Stress Blues Band's "Live at the Brick Cottage 1972-1973"

There used to be a band like the Mr. Stress Blues Band in every American city, after Paul Butterfield's mixed-race lineup exploded out of Chicago in '65 -- as world-historical an event as Dylan's "going electric" at that year's Newport Folk Festival (with backing by some Butterfield musos). The bands that followed in Butterfield's wake provided an opportunity for young musos and listeners who'd teethed on folk and rock to experience a taste of urban authenticity. In Ann Arbor, Michigan, the local simulacrum was the Prime Movers, whose drummer traveled to Chicago to sit at Butterfield drummer Sam Lay's feet before realizing he needed to make his own kind of blues, and reinventing himself as Iggy Pop. That's right: No Butterfield, no Stooges.

Even before Chrissie Hynde -- who'd rehearsed with his band a couple of times -- namechecked Bill "Mr. Stress" Miller in a song on the first Pretenders album, I was aware of his status as a Cleveland institution. I'd worked in a Dallas record store with Guitar Player/Living Blues scribe Tim Schuller (RIP), an Ohio expat who'd regale us with memories of Miller's droll humor. (The phrase that pays was "The more you drink, the better we sound.") So when estimable indie Smog Veil announced last year that they were releasing a live Mr. Stress recording as part of their CLE-centric "Platters du Cuyahoga" series, it piqued my interest.

Miller formed his band in the summer of '66, taking its name (which folks inevitably started applying to its leader-frontman) from a term used in psychiatric hospitals. Like those of Butterfield, Muddy Waters, and John Mayall, Miller's band served as a finishing school for local talent. Guitarist Glenn Schwartz (Pacific Gas & Electric), who held the chair in '67, brought along members of his "other" band, the James Gang, to jam. Following a brief hiatus in '71, Miller reformed the band with guitarist-singer Peter Laughner. It was Laughner who originally hustled the gig at the Brick Cottage, a rough-and-tumble joint where these recordings were made following his ouster from the band in the summer of '72. He'd go on to achieve proto-punk notoriety with Rocket From the Tombs and Pere Ubu. Another future Ubu-ite, drummer Anton Fier, was also a Stress alumnus.

Miller -- who died in 2015 as this release was being prepared -- was a workmanlike singer in the same vein as Butterfield or Charlie Musselwhite. His harp playing was modeled on Little Walter's and Sonny Boy Williamson's -- whose wasn't? -- and he could hold his own onstage with Robert Jr. Lockwood, a familiar of both his exemplars who'd settled in Cleveland in the '70s. Miller fronted a hard-gigging, four-sets-a-night unit whose character changed with the musicians that passed through.

On this album, the guitar is ably handled by Chuck "Pontiac Slim" Drazdik, a skillful technician with a biting tone and fierce sustain that's reminiscent of Harvey Mandel. (Dig his solos on "How Many More Years" and "Sweet Little Angel.") Long-serving band member Mike Sands, who ultimately logged 26 years with Stress, tinkles the keys on the Wurlitzer electric piano deftly, while bassist Tom Rinda and drummer Pete Sinks provide solid, unobtrusive support.

The material's drawn from the standard Chicago blues repertoire, occasionally leaning toward rock in the manner of the white blues bands of the time. The songs are associated with artists as diverse as Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, Bobby Bland, Slim Harpo, Jimmy Reed, Little Milton, and B.B. King, but Miller and his crew tackle them in their own scrappy Midwestern style, rather than merely copying the originals. (The CD gives you 14 songs, the LP nine, plus a download card that lets you make up the difference.) Had they jumped on the offer of a Capitol contract that Miller declined in '69, they might have given the British blues imitators that were all the rage at the time a run for their money. For the Stress band played this music like they owned it, not as though they were borrowing it.

The sound quality is exceptional for its time, capturing the ambiance of the room so well that you can practically smell the sweat, the cigarette smoke, and the spilled beer. Nick Blakey's detailed and informative liner notes represent a journalistic feat on a par with Tom Ellis III's multi-part Butterfield saga in Blues Access, or any number of epic band histories in Ugly Things. If you were there, this release will take you back. If you weren't, it'll give you an idea why you might have wanted to be.


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