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O.C. POP MUSIC REVIEW : Jay Geils, Magic Dick Sprout Blues From Newfound Roots

October 31, 1994|BILL KOHLHAASE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

BREA — Let's call it "Full Circle Syndrome." Popular among jazz, blues and rock artists, FCS occurs when musicians are credited with a return to their "roots," are said to rediscover the "music of their youth," their "first love," or, most overblown of all, are doing "what they always wanted to do."

There are extreme examples of this, as when over-the-hill rock drummers turn to be-bop. But not all attacks of FCS are so irritating. Take the Jay Geils-Magic Dick group Bluestime, which played Saturday night on the patio at the Cantina La Vida.

As members of the hard-rocking J. Geils Band, Geils and Dick (Richard Salwitz) stayed closer to pop's blues roots than most commercially successful outfits. Sure, they had some tunes custom-tooled for sales. But Dick's thick, inventive harmonica tones and guitarist Geils' insistent blues bent always had a touch of that Chicago feel, no matter what material Peter Wolf was singing.

So it's not that great a leap for Geils and Dick to add an upright bassist, a pulse-oriented second guitarist and a slap-happy drummer, and to start jumping to tunes influenced by Sonny Boy Williamson or Buddy Guy and Junior Wells. This tough, boogie-minded style of urban blues was a sure winner at this rustic roadhouse up Carbon Canyon.

With a raft of Harley Davidsons parked outside the front door and black leather (often-fringed) the attire of choice, the Cantina provided the perfect setting for Bluestime's hard-driving ways. Fans crowded onto the patio's benches and round concrete tables, or stood where they could. The dance floor was crowded constantly.

During the opening band's set, a disturbance broke out up front and a knot of nearly a dozen people danced slowly back-and-forth like a rugby scrum until the offending parties were settled. Anybody ready for a little blues?

Despite the chilly temperature, Bluestime stayed warm and upbeat, playing few ballads. Though there were occasional shouts for "Centerfold" and "Freeze Frame," Dick and Geils avoided their checkered past and stuck mainly to tunes from their new Bluestime recording.

When they did look back, the selection only underscored the old Geils Band's ties to the style of music Geils and Dick play now. Coming near the end of the show, "Whammer Jammer," an instrumental feature for Dick's rich, springy harmonica work that dates back to the 1972 Geils Band "Full House" album, gave the people what they wanted. Dick's long-on-breath playing was some of his most agile of the evening.

While Dick's harmonica is the band's centerpiece, he often pocketed the instrument for entire numbers and worked strictly as a singer. Though he was capable, his delivery was a bit too even, unmarked by bursts of passion, and humbled by a bland though not unpleasant tone. Only on harmonica does he really kick loose. The most magical moments came when he and Geils combined tones, as they did during "Nine Below Zero." They have an uncanny way of following each other around in a not-quite unison, their amplified sounds melting together to produce a flowing, honey-coated blend.

Geils, though not as exciting as Dick, played with insistence and drive, leaving well-considered space between his phrases. And when a tune called for more upbeat antics, he showed that he still can rock with the best, as proven by his hard-cornering attack on "Pontiac Blues."

The Max Bangwell band, which opened the evening, proved it has an important skill that all roadhouse bands need--the ability to stay focused and to keep playing when a fight breaks out in front of the bandstand. The set included songs about frustrated men, overstimulated women, wolves and chickens. Tight play from savvy guitarist Job Striles was a consistent delight.

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