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They're Guileless--It's Bluestime : Pop music: Magic Dick and Jay Geils, reunited, want no part of hitmaker nostalgia as they recover their straight-ahead blues roots.

October 29, 1994|BUDDY SEIGAL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

They were loud; they were dynamic; they were cartoony, and they were a hell of a lot of fun. The J. Geils Band, a concert and radio staple of the '70s and '80s, took blues, R&B and rock 'n' roll, mixed it vigorously with manic energy and showmanship, and came up with a winning formula.

"Freeze-Frame," "Centerfold," "Love Stinks," "Must of Got Lost" and "First I Look at the Purse" are among the group's most fondly remembered hits, but fewer recall the Geils Band's origins as a more straight-ahead blues group, perhaps best known at the time for its vivifying covers of tunes by Otis Rush, John Lee Hooker and Willie Dixon.

Ten years after the band's breakup, two of its core members have reunited to form Magic Dick & Jay Geils Bluestime, a traditional blues and jump group that finds guitarist Geils and blues harpist Dick coming full circle, rediscovering the music that first inspired them to play.

Rounded out by rhythm guitarist Jerry Miller, bassist Michael Ward and drummer Steve Ramsay, Bluestime--which plays tonight at Cantina La Vida in Brea--is a far cry from even the earlier incarnations of the J. Geils Band, judging from the group's recently released, self-titled album on Boston's Rounder Records.

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Gone is the kinetic animation, the jivey charisma and rock 'n' roll attack that marked the Geils Band's style. Bluestime plays serious-minded, no-frills roots music, and wants no part of any nostalgia for the old hitmaking days.

"The main thing I want people to understand," Dick said in a recent interview, "is that the band is doing a combination of classic, Chicago-style blues and classic jazz. It's important to me that people understand this because when they come to the shows, I want them to know that they're not going to be hearing old J. Geils Band tunes."

In marked contrast to his erstwhile wildman stage persona, Dick spoke in thoughtful, measured tones, seemingly evaluating each word before he used it, elucidating a deep desire that the music of Bluestime not be misunderstood.

"This is very important to me. A lot of people, all they knew us for was 'Freeze-Frame,' 'Centerfold' and stuff like that," said Dick, 49. "I don't think they were aware of how blues and R&B oriented the earlier stuff was. I really feel great about (the new group) because this is the music that inspired J. and myself when we first discovered our mutual interest in Chicago-style blues and classic jazz.

"We never got to do enough of it in the J. Geils Band. We kind of went down the rock road--which was fine, we had a great time with that, too. I thoroughly enjoyed it. But this is different, to be fronting a band which is very fundamental, and to play the music that was my first love."

Dick, born Richard Salwitz, grew up in Pittsfield, Mass., and was into rock and blues from the time he was a small child.

"I have a brother four years older than me and he had all these rock 'n' roll records around the house, like Little Richard's first 78s," he recalled. "I wore those (records) out. I memorized every Lee Allen sax solo. I knew those solos by heart in my head even before I played an instrument, and they were probably a very big influence on me.

"There was also jazz stuff around the house, early Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and some Louis Armstrong. It wasn't until later on that I got exposed to Chicago-style blues, and that really clinched it all for me."

The J. Geils Blues Band--later shortened to the J. Geils Band--formed in 1967 and soon was a staple of the Boston club scene. Signed to Atlantic Records in 1971, it became a popular touring attraction, aided by such prominent extollers as the Allman Brothers, who praised the Geils Band as their favorite, and legendary promoter/Fillmore owner Bill Graham who always would go out of his way to tout Geils and company.

"I remember closing the Fillmore East with the Allman Brothers," said Dick. "Bill was great. I miss him. He was a good thing for this business. He was a committed man, and he always did great things for the J. Geils Band. When we were first being introduced on the West Coast, I remember him saying to the audience that he was really proud to present this band, and if they didn't like the show he'd be glad to give them their money back. Nobody left, but he was the kind of guy who would always lay things on the line."

The Geils Band's rep was forged in no small part by the mind-boggling metier of Magic Dick who became known as a virtuoso musician, a harp player's harp player. Well versed in the classic blues styles of Little Walter, James Cotton and Sonny Boy Williamson, he also could play with a young rocker's speed and aggression, as best evidenced on his tour-de-force workout "Whammer Jammer."

In Bluestime, he returns to the vintage style of his mentors, and also serves as lead vocalist--a role he serves more or less competently, albeit without the sheer excellence of his musicianship on the harp.

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