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O. C. LIVE

He Believes in Magic

Jay Geils, Who'll Play Newport Fest, Focuses on Blues With Old Pal

September 26, 1996|BUDDY SEIGAL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

NEWPORT BEACH — The time has come to pay homage to Jay Geils. Let us praise his deft, callused fingertips; let us exalt in nearly three decades' worth of his quietly heroic guitarsmanship. Let us give thanks for every slicked-back hair on his half-century-old head for his long and meritorious service to the blues, jazz and rock 'n' roll.

No, you don't often hear his name mentioned in discussions of the world's great guitarists, but that's an oversight with a long history. Seventeen years with a band that bore his name did little to enhance Geils' reputation; his more charismatic bandmates--Magic Dick and Peter Wolf--got most the ink and attention.

Even now, paired off with harp monster Dick in a group alternately billed as Magic Dick & Jay Geils, Magic Dick & Jay Geils Bluestime, or simply Bluestime (yes, this gets confusing), Geils still seems to be playing second fiddle to his super-skilled (but cartoony) longtime pal.

But Bluestime's latest album, "Little Car Blues" (on Rounder), belongs to Mr. Geils. One listening will convince you of that. From the soulful strut of Marvin Gaye's "Stubborn Kind of Fellow" to the burnin' blues of Little Walter's "Tonight With a Fool" to the red-hot swing of Jay McShann's "The Jumpin' Blues," this album (Bluestime's second) is a superlative showcase for Geils' admirable arsenal of chops, taste and versatility.

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What's particularly commendable about Bluestime--which plays Saturday at the Dos Equis Blues Festival in Newport Beach--is its insistence on being taken on its own terms.

It would be an easy buck for Geils and Dick if they billed the group as the J. Geils Band; people would flock to the shows expecting such songs as "Centerfold," "Freeze-Frame," "Love Stinks," "Must of Got Lost" and "First I Look at the Purse" culled from the Geils Band's long history.

But "there'd be no point in doing that," Geils said during a recent phone conversation. "As soon as you say 'the J. Geils Band,' people would want to hear all those songs we can't do. This band is not about that. It's about playing the music that Dick and I like. This is about what we used to play before there was a J. Geils Band.

"The only tune we do from the Geils Band is 'Whammer Jammer,' which is just a Chicago blues instrumental anyway. But it's not like what we're doing now is techno-pop or something that has nothing to do with the J. Geils Band. If you dug the J. Geils Band, particularly the old records, you should dig this band too."

The Geils Band was formed in Boston in 1967 and soon developed a rep as the wildest party group in New England. It played blues with a youthful edge, a rocker's energy. Over the years, it grew into more of a rockin' R&B unit, culminating with "Freeze-Frame," an album that went to No. 1 in 1981. But lead singer-songwriter Wolf left in 1983, and after one more, halfhearted album, the group disbanded.

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Geils still bears Wolf a grudge, refusing even to speak his name.

"The [singer] left, and nobody was really interested in us after that," Geils said. "To this day we really don't have anything to say to each other--shall we put it that way? I think of the J. Geils Band as having run a pretty normal, natural course. We made a lot of records and became more and more popular. We played shows, traveled and eventually had a big hit record. The only unfortunate thing is that we didn't have a few more."

Bluestime takes Geils and Dick--along with bassist Michael "Mudcat" Ward, drummer Steve Ramsay and rhythm guitarist Jerry Miller--full circle, back 30 years to when young Jerome Geils and Richard Salwitz met and began their long musical and personal partnership, based on a mutual love of blues and classic jazz. Bluestime's music is straightforward, fun and expertly performed, very much in the tradition of the early Geils albums with an added dose of vintage jazz and swing.

That said, Bluestime has one serious drawback in comparison to the original Geils Band: Magic Dick, while certainly one of the most fiercely original harp players ever to suck the chrome, is a weak and unconvincing lead vocalist, especially when compared with Wolf, who was royalty in the annals of blue-eyed soul singers.

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But Geils defends Dick's vocal effort as just fine for what it is.

"The thing that's great about Dick's singing is that it's absolutely honest," Geils said. "It's him and just him. And I think when you listen to the first record and the second . . . he's made a tremendous amount of improvement.

"I personally don't agree with a lot of the styles of white blues singers anyway. It's so fake. . . . You have a lot of them using old colloquialisms like 'all you pretty wimmens' and that stuff. C'mon, man! You don't talk like that! You can't compare with guys like Bobby Bland and B.B. King and Muddy Waters anyway.

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