Matt Sweeney & Will Oldham on Magic Sam – 1957-1966 WEST SIDE GUITAR
There have been a lot of surprises in 2021, musically, but somewhere up near the top lands the fact that a new LP from Matt Sweeney and Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy makes its way out this year. Superwolf was one of those records that locked itself to the turntable, a tender, yet torrid record that proved each artist had found their foil in one another. The new record is no less nuanced, an album that’s sweeping, serene, and scorched in equal regard. Age hasn’t dulled their instruments but as with many, it’s widened the palette to include family and humility. Though, it’s not just a lyrical shift, a voracious spirit guides the record, incorporating sounds outside the gnarled folk that’s found purchase in their catalog. Naturally, when the opportunity arose to get Will or Matt in for a Gems, I’d jumped at the chance, though they did me one better with a joint pick that explores a shared love that’s brought them together. Check out their take on this comp from Chicago’s Magic Sam.
“This is a collection of recordings credited to “Magic Sam” Maghett. Maghett’s singing was an influence on Bonny’s singing,” reveals the pair. “Magic Sam didn’t make a lot of records. His brain exploded one morning while he was eating cereal. He was about 30 years old. There’s some vibrations on these recordings that set the music apart from any reality we’re actually familiar with. Magic Sam made two full-length studio records, which are wonderful. They are less mysterious in their presence. Willie Dixon plays on many Cobra recordings; he plays on about half of these songs. He doesn’t play on ‘Every Night About This Time,’ which is the epic anthem that towers above. If you look you can find some footage of him playing a borrowed guitar and demonstrating why he is called ‘magic’, look for ‘Magic Sam- All Your Love and Lookin’ Good.'”
“White people shouldn’t claim to be able to play the blues. When Sam sings, he pushes his throat to its limit, like Paul Brady does or Antonin Dalgas does. You get the sense that he is pushing against a membrane of reality that separates him from Heaven. But we cannot break into Heaven and hold onto our mortal bodies, so we have to go home after a show and do it all again the very next night. “I go to sleep to keep from crying” he sings. Those are two options every day: sleeping or weeping. Both are sufficient methodologies. Not sure if Maghett played with flat wound strings. Sounds like it, enough so that we took to stringing guitars with flat wounds. Just the feeling of your fingers on flat wounds gives you the sense of Sam’s language. You can say ‘May I have a cup of coffee?’ Or ‘You still owe me 100 dollars’ while Sam is able to spin out eternal pronouncements and vigorous condemnations. He was eloquent and unique. Willie Dixon was an angel on the shoulder of many musicians. God bless him.”
Thankfully this one remains in print, and on the cheap side too, which means that you can hook into the Cobra years of Magic Sam fairly easily. The much loved, but far too quickly extinguished light of Sam’s music has always been one of those delightful discoveries in life, couldn’t agree more with Matt and Will here, and his collection packs up his best. As for Superwolves, I’d definitely recommend that one make its way onto your list, if it isn’t topping it already. The record’s out next week from Drag City.
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