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Milwaukee blues harp legend Jim Liban says what he means with Joel Paterson

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What started out as a labor of love for Chicago guitarist Joel Paterson has become one of the year’s most exciting and rewarding blues albums, I Say What I Mean, by Jim Liban with the Joel Paterson Trio.

Liban, of course, is Milwaukee’s legendary blues harmonica player/singer-songwriter, who fronted the influential blues-rock band Short Stuff in the 1970s, setting the style for artists like the Fabulous Thunderbirds and Stevie Ray Vaughan. His songs have been recorded by the likes of Johnny Winter and Rick Estrin, and he’s played with such blues greats as Big Joe Williams, Sleepy John Estes and Big Walter Horton, not to mention Jimi Hendrix, with whom he recalls playing “eyeball to eyeball" when Hendrix came to see Liban’s late ‘60s band A.B. Skhy at The Whisky a Go Go in Los Angeles and came up to jam on “Hoochie Coochie Man.”

The younger Paterson, meanwhile, grew up in Madison.

“I’ve been listening to Jim since I was six, and I played with him 20 years ago,” he recalls. “I’d been playing bass for [Madison blues band] Paul Black & the Flip Kings, and Jim called me out of the blue to play guitar. I was just a kid, and for a couple years I drove to Milwaukee and back to play with him, and it was a really, really good band—the Jim Liban Blues Combo. It was my first experience playing blues guitar.”

But Paterson was young, and Liban was at a different stage in his career.

“I was 24 and itching to do something, and he was content playing around Milwaukee,” says Paterson. “So I eventually moved to Chicago.”

Since 1998 Paterson has established himself in bands in Chicago including his trio, the Modern Sounds and the Cash Box Kings, and has also launched an indie label, Ventrella Records--named after a friend whose name “sounded cool and would look good on an old 78 [r.p.m.] record.” He's released seven CDs on Venrella, the latest being I Say What I Mean.

“I’d always felt kind of bad the way I left Jim and the band, and appreciated him more and more as the years went by,” says Paterson. “I had expected all harmonica players to be as good as him when I moved to Chicago, where all the guys from Little Walter to James Cotton came from. But they weren’t, and I appreciated him that much more.”

Since then, “we played a couple gigs here and there, and I got him to Chicago to play Buddy Guy’s, but he wasn’t too motivated to play outside Milwaukee,” continues Paterson. “So I was always a little sad playing with him then: He was withdrawn, and not like him at all—and we drifted apart again.”

Much of it had to do with the prolonged illness and eventual passing of Liban’s wife.

“Then a year ago I got called to play a Sunday afternoon gig in Milwaukee, a blues jam—with Jim. I went there not expecting anything and was shocked at how much fire he had. I thought maybe the chops were gone, but not at all. It was the old Jim Liban, probably better than he used to play, with all the technique but a lot more soulful--and he still knew how to fire up a crowd.”

“After the first song, it hit me,” Paterson relates. “I had to make a record with him and make up for lost time.”

But Liban hadn’t made a record in 10 years, and was not looking to do one again.

“I wasn’t against it, but I really didn’t care if I did another CD,” says Liban. “One reason is, it’s a lot of work, and the older I get I guess the less I want to work that hard! But Joel came around and offered to do the heavy lifting, so it was a no-brainer.”

“I told him, ‘We got to make a record! We got to make a record!,” recalls Paterson. “'Come down and record in this cool studio that [contemporary rockabilly-rocker] JD McPherson uses,’ and he didn’t know what I was talking about and started to laugh. So I drove to Milwaukee and told him my ideas and he started digging out piles and piles of years of demo tapes that were amazing—but I didn’t know where to start.”

Paterson eventually did “wade through it all,” says Liban, then booked the studio and the musicians. “It’s his label, his vision, and I just kicked back and for the first time gladly relinquished control and enjoyed the ride. All I had to do was show up.”

“How often do you get good, original blues songs?” says Paterson. “We got together and jammed in my apartment and mapped out the whole record. Maybe since I played with him so long ago, we have this weird telepathic thing where I complete his phrases and he completes mine. The really interesting thing about him is that he really thinks about tone--and he doesn’t just learn the harmonica part but all the guitar licks on the harmonica. He’s really a complete musician for a harmonica player, so it’s really fun playing with him. I like imitating B.B. King and Freddie King, and he does the same thing with James Cotton and Little Walter and Sonny Boy Williamson and all those guys. He’s possessed by them and plays like them without just copying their solos.”

As Paterson invokes the styles of the blues greats, Liban salutes the sound of their records.

“People who know me think this might be the best thing I’ve done, but it’s certainly the best-sounding thing,” he says. “It’s just a beautiful, beautiful sound. Joel wanted to do it like the old Chess records, so he went to Hi-Style Studio in Chicago, which has all the vintage recording gear, and recorded it all in one room in real time like they used to do it, with a wonderful warm room sound.”

As Paterson wrote in the liner notes, “I Say What I Mean is not just a comeback. It is a snapshot of a life in blues, a tribute to all of our blues heroes, a loving tribute to Jim’s late wife, and a reunion with one of my heroes and first musical influences. These 14 original blues songs are proof that Jim Liban says what he means, and indeed means just what he says.”

Paterson’s plan was to bring Liban “to my audience, who’s never heard of him—but it’s worked the other way around as well,” he notes—as does Liban.

“The thing about this album is it’s going to expose me to a younger audience, as well as renew my contract with people who already know me,” says Liban. “Joel’s fan base is younger, and it’s exciting to be exposed to it—though whether they like it remains to be seen. It might not make me a household name—and at my age I’m not so sure I want it!—but it will take Joel and me to places I’ve never been. We always felt we had chemistry together, and it still seems to be there.”

In fact, celebrated rock ‘n’ roll DJ Rockin’ John McDonald, long a fixture on Madison, Wis. station WORT-FM, has already picked up on the album, being a big supporter of Paterson.

With Paterson, Liban has promoted the new album at the recent Chicago Blues Festival and Milwaukee Summerfest.

“We’re just at the start of it, but already there’s a lot of noise about it in blues circles, at least," says Liban. "Next month we’ll do a small road trip to St. Louis, and I’m sure we’ll squeeze in some European gigs and festival work next summer—but by next summer word should really be out and we’ll be reaping those benefits.”

Liban pauses before volunteering that the “crowning jewel” on I Say What I Mean is his deeply personal song “Thank You for the Dance.”

“It’s about my wife Ann and our relationship,” he says, softly.

“I really struggled after she died,” he concedes. “I put my feelings down and struggled most of the last six years writing down hundreds and hundreds of ideas, but nothing really jelled. And then over the winter I remembered how we talked about our relationship as being a ‘dance’--and took the metaphor and ran with it.”

Most of the song does in fact carry the dance metaphor forward. But the last verse departs from it, with “Now 20 stones, in 19 years/A thousand laughs and million tears.”

"I don’t tell everybody, but towards the end, her thinking got pretty muddled,” reveals Liban. “We had an anniversary coming up--which turned out to be our last--our 19th anniversary, but she thought it was our 20th and kept correcting me. Finally, being the dutiful husband, I said, ‘Okay, dear. It’s 20.’ I bought her a heart-shaped pendant with 20 diamond chips.”

“It was a thousand laughs during, and a million tears after. But I feel really blessed.”

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