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Now in his early 70s, John Primer continues to deliver high-quality sets rooted in postwar blues but spiced with originality. He's an eloquent songwriter, and even when he plays other people's material, he avoids the overcooked chestnuts ("Sweet Home Chicago" et al.) that cliche-weary fans have taken to calling the "set list from hell."
To say that Primer stands on the shoulders of giants isn't empty rhetoric—his list of early mentors and associates reads like a partial roll call for the Chicago Blues Hall of Fame. His first major gig, in the early 70s, was at Theresa's Lounge, home base of harp legend Junior Wells. The house band also included Muddy Waters alumnus Sammy Lawhorn, a versatile guitarist Primer has credited with inspiring him to take up the slide—now one of his trademark techniques. He remained at Theresa's, listening and learning and honing his chops, till Waters recruited him in 1980. After Waters became too ill to perform in '82, Primer hooked up with yet another Chicago blues master, the incendiary Magic Slim, with whom he played for about 13 years.
Primer's debut recording under his own name was on a blues anthology issued by Austrian label Wolf in 1991; in 1993, he released Stuff You Got to Watch, his first full-length, on Chicago's Earwig imprint. By 1995, when he recorded The Real Deal, he knew it was time to establish himself on his own. "I hated to leave [Magic Slim]," he told me in a 2009 interview for Living Blues. "We had such a good thing going for us. But . . . be there so long as you can, then you gotta go. Let somebody else learn."
That's not a casual statement coming from Primer. Having had his own career enriched so deeply by mentors, he takes very seriously his responsibilities as a role model for young musicians. "We're teachers now," he explained in that same Living Blues article. "Teach you 'bout the blues. Somebody wanna move along—think you'll make more [money on your own]? Go ahead. Somebody else [comes in], teach them how to play it. Keep the blues goin'."
That's exactly what Primer has done through the years. His recorded output has included original material, imaginatively chosen covers, and tributes to the likes of Waters and slide master Elmore James. Primer's slide work is supple and intense; his single-string leads balance precision with dexterity as they dance through his sidemen's straightforward boogie shuffles; and his sensual, earthy vocals are toughened with aggression. It's a blend of roots and innovation, in other words, and it exemplifies what the term "living heritage" should mean.
John Primer & the Real Deal Blues Band perform Sunday, June 12, at 3 PM on the Front Porch Stage.