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Paul Black: Deep in the blues
Guitarist Paul Black cuts to the bone on Live at the Harmony

Black probes the unnamable and the unknown.
Black probes the unnamable and the unknown.
Credit:Daniel Daley
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Guitarist Paul Black cuts to the bone on Live at the Harmony

Paul Black was never a cuddly performer. Years ago, talking about his approach to live performances, the Madison-based blues man explained to me, "I'm not there to get the audience excited and sweaty and get 'em to drink a lot of beer."

Blues-rock guitar flash? Let-the-good-times-roll jocularity? Black rejected both approaches.

For 30 years, he refined his sets with his regular band, the Flip Kings, to the point where their takes on a connoisseur's selection of Delta blues, Chicago-shaded scuffling, inventively reworked rock covers and sly originals seemed to bore directly into the floorboards of local rooms like the old Church Key, the Crystal Corner and the Harmony Bar. These were serious blues sessions played with seriously talented sidemen like Jerry Alexander, West Side Andy Linderman and Joel Paterson. And the focus was almost always on Black's deft ululations on slide guitar - long, at times otherworldly peregrinations that could be unrelentingly doleful one minute and transcendently witty the next.

Sure, on some level the Flip Kings were offering up a soundtrack for the partiers who took over the bars after the work week was done. But it was also a kind of blues ritual in which Black played the role of shaman, massaging and stretching what appeared to be simple 12-bars until they came across as weird, goading messages from another dimension.

Black hadn't come to his magic easily. He'd knocked around in various contexts before settling in Madison in the mid-'70s. A stint playing around the South with Sonny Landreth (who'd go on to play with John Hiatt and do respected solo work) netted a lot of drunken nights and very little money. Later he played guitar with Texas-bred, San Francisco-based singer Jeannie Stout, who seemed destined for big things until she negotiated her way out of a contract with Arista Records.

Once he settled in Madison, Black became a reliable draw at local watering holes, and the Flip Kings established themselves as one of the area's best blues acts. He recorded a little, but mostly he developed his sound in clubs. In fact, it wasn't until the 1996 release of the David Z.-produced King Dollar on the House of Blues label that he got a brief shot at national exposure as a leader. Unfortunately, the label folded just as the album was getting some momentum. Black had matured into a unique blues player, but somehow he was back to playing remarkable live gigs in the same small Madison clubs.

The story might have ended there if the Harmony Bar's Keith Daniels and another devoted Black fan, Keith Heimforth, hadn't decided that it was high time someone captured the spirit of those local gigs on a CD. That led to two nights of live recording in March 2005 with a version of the Flip Kings that included bassist John Hauser, drummer Mark Haines and Black's longtime friend and musical collaborator Jerry Alexander on harmonica and vocals. Special guest Joe Nosek also contributed some blues harp.

Daniels and Heimforth had hoped to commit a third date to tape before culling tracks for Live at the Harmony. But Black has had health issues, and when another gig failed to materialize, they decided it was time just to go with what they had. Thanks to Audio for the Arts' Steve Gotcher, they definitely captured the Black that fans had experienced for so many years.

Indeed, you can almost see the grizzled guitarist, seated in a chair with his beloved Mets cap pulled down low, as the band creeps and burns through Robert Johnson covers, a wickedly down-home take on the Stones' "Factory Girl" and a hair-raising crawl through Howlin' Wolf's ".44 Blues." On the latter, Black demonstrates how to put a jaunty lilt into his chosen form even as he presents Wolf's ratchet-toting protagonist in all his homicidal fury. By the middle of the tune, you find yourself hoping the stabbing slide figure that serves as a de facto hook would spool out forever into the darkness. It's that affecting. A grinding "Murder My Baby" is more brutal, with Black's drawled vocal striking a disturbing balance between hardcore confession and offhanded barroom conversation.

And then there's Johnson's "Malted Milk." It's the ultimate anti-crowd-pleaser. Black wouldn't think of using the tune as a backdrop for sonic explosions. The rhythm section clamps down on the slow, deliberate beat, and Black's greasy slide wears away at the groove like an old razor that's been stropped too many times. This is a song about existential fear and demonic forces just out of view, and Black sounds very much like a man who knows he's tempting fate as he uses his slide to probe the unnamable and the unknown.

Suffice it to say that, despite an added gruffness in Black's voice that Heimforth says was the result of a head cold, Live at the Harmony may be the best document of Black's live work that we'll ever have. And if you prefer your blues raw and unpredictable and a little bit strange, you're gonna like it. You're gonna like it a lot.

Live at the Harmony is available at B-Side, MadCity Music Exchange, Sugar Shack and Strictly Discs.

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