Joined by his longtime collaborator, Buddy Guy, Junior Wells leads a razor-sharp Chicago ensemble through an unforgettable live set of electric blues.
“Do you wanna go way down in the alley?” Buddy Guy asks the audience at Boston’s Nightstage in 1986. “Do you really want to hear some blues you don’t get anymore? Well, watch this shit!”
With that, he turns the microphone over to his co-bandleader Junior Wells, who hushes the sextet to a mere murmur. He sings Muddy Waters’ “She Moves Me” in a baritone as quietly ominous as the fills from his own harmonica and from Guy’s guitar. Here is an understated antidote to all the overstated blues of the rock era. Guy and Wells had learned that restraint from working with Waters, though they joined him after he had recorded “She Moves Me” in 1951 with harmonica pioneer Little Walter.
Guy and Wells could be as aggressive as anyone, however, when the occasion called for it, and prove as much by segueing into a stomping version of Waters’ “Trouble No More,” later a staple of nearly every Allman Brothers Band show. And Guy’s guitar solo this night in Boston demonstrates the linkage between Waters’ original discipline and Duane Allman’s later adventurousness.
This is second-generation Chicago blues with its own updates on the templates.
Most of this hour-long film is devoted to blues history. Guy sings a medley of Elmore James’ “Look on Yonder Wall” and Robert Johnson’s “Sweet Home Chicago” to open the evening; Wells does his own versions of the famous harmonica solos on Little Walter’s “Juke” and the second Sonny Boy Williamson’s “My Younger Days.” But Guy and Wells aren’t interested in providing note-perfect replicas of the original recordings. This is second-generation Chicago blues with its own updates on the templates.
Guy’s guitar breaks are full of the proto-rock blistering runs and purposeful distortions that got him into trouble at Chess Records for daring to mess with tradition. Wells’ harmonica breaks are more focused and melodic. And both put more than a little funk into their playing. This is most obvious in the show-ending medley of three James Brown songs: “Super Bad,” “Cold Sweat” and “I Got You (I Feel Good).”
It’s surprising how little the music changes as they shift from Waters to Brown. Wells’ lead vocal is still a collection of percussive grunts, groans, shouts, squeals and gospel singing that serves the rhythm as much as the melody — and his harmonica is a duet partner that shadows everything the voice is doing. Meanwhile, Guy and the two other guitarists in the band aren’t playing with the clipped precision of Brown’s Jimmy Nolen but rather with the greasy slipperiness of such blues guitar trailblazers as Hubert Sumlin, Otis Rush and Guy himself.
The vocals and guitars don’t really gel until “I Got You (I Feel Good),” but when they do, the thrilling result doesn’t sound exactly like Waters nor exactly like Brown but like a forgotten bridge between the two. Here is a fusion music that has never been explored and extended as it should have been. Simultaneous with their solo careers, Guy and Wells toured together for several months every year between 1968 and 1989. This show comes from near the end of the run, and it reveals both the similarities and differences between the two men.
A year-and-a-half younger, Guy brings tenor vocals with a big grin and a maximalist approach to soloing, while Wells supplies baritone singing with a sly, grudging smile and a minimalist style. Yet both had apprenticed with Waters, and both were determined to keep pushing that legacy forward. When they arrived in Boston on this night in 1986, they called up the past to make it serve the future.
Junior Wells “Live at Nightstage” Setlist
Look on Yonder Wall (Elmore James cover)—>
Sweet Home Chicago (Robert Johnson cover)
Crazy ‘Bout You
Make Me Feel So Good—>
What My Momma Told Me
She Moves Me (Muddy Waters cover)—>
She’s Nineteen Years Old (Muddy Waters cover)—>
Trouble No More (Muddy Waters cover)
Juke (Little Walter cover)
My Younger Days (Sonny Boy Williamson II cover)
Got My Mojo Working (Muddy Waters cover)
Super Bad (James Brown cover)—>
Cold Sweat(James Brown cover)—>
I Got You (I Feel Good) (James Brown cover)
Geoffrey Himes wrote about pop music on a weekly basis in the Washington Post from 1977 to 2019 and has served as a senior editor at No Depression and Paste magazines. He has also written about pop music, jazz, theater, film, art and books for Rolling Stone, Oxford American, The New York Times, Smithsonian, National Public Radio, DownBeat and other outlets. He has been honored for Music Feature Writing by the Deems Taylor/ASCAP Awards (2003, 2005, 2014 and 2016), the New Orleans Press Awards, the Abell Foundation Awards and the Music Journalism Awards. His book on Bruce Springsteen, “Born in the U.S.A.,” was published by Continuum Books in 2005. He’s currently working on a book for the Country Music Hall of Fame.