Otis Rush, "Live in Europe" (1993)


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By Nick Deriso

Otis Rush is the star-crossed guitar god, always in the right place at the wrong time. Close but no rock star.

That despite his role as a principal architect of the modern Chicago blues-guitar vernacular, and a memorably emotional style of singing that echoes some of the genre's most recognizable figures.

He's in his prime on “Live in Europe." Though a terrific concert of Rush's has more recently been issued, 2006's “Live and In Concert from San Francisco" (actually a 1999 date), I've found no more complete late-period testament to both this Mississippi native's ringing vibrato-flecked improvisations and his foundation-shaking intensity as a vocalist.

Recorded live on Oct. 9, 1977 in France, the sizzling date includes Bob Levis on rhythm, Bob Stroger on bass and Jesse Green at the drums. They are particularly effective in an update of Rush's “All Your Love," a rocking little rhumba that the guitarist legendarily wrote on the way to a recording date with Ike Turner's working group.

Even this superlative concert effort, alas, took a circuitous journey, failing to see release until 15 long years later on Evidence Records.

It all should have come easier.

Rush, a native of Nesoba County, Miss., started his blues trek working for Abco Records of Chicago's West Side as its juke joints and alley ways were crackling with the new city blues of Buddy Guy, Freddie King and Magic Sam. Rush had his first hit for the Abco subsidiary Cobra, the almost-scary moan of “I Can't Quit You Baby," (embedded below; a clear inspiration for Led Zeppelin). He played with future stars like Walter Horton, Little Brother Montgomery and Willie Dixon.

Yet he saw little of the profits, reportedly because of the label-owner's heavy gambling.

Dixon, a principal architect of the Chicago sound both as a bassist and composer, then signed Rush to the legendary Chess Records. Fewer than 10 singles emerged, notably “So Many Roads, So Many Trains," but none broke nationally.

A later stop at Duke was no more successful. Five years there produced just one single, 1962's “Homework." Same with a later stop at Capitol Records—which worked out pretty well for folks like Frank Sinatra and the Beatles, but was perhaps most notable for producing an album, yes, called “Right Place, Wrong Time."

Even that one, at least initially, went unreleased. (It has subsequently appeared on a series of minor labels, and could recently be found on HighTone.) He's had false starts with the Rooster Blues, Delmark, Blind Pig and House of Blues labels, too.

You just don't get that many opportunities to hear this bitingly incisive, too-soon-forgotten performer. That's a shame.

As a singer, Otis Rush was a neat amalgamation of B.B. King ("You're Breaking My Heart," included on “Live in Europe") and Freddie King ("I'm Tore Up," written by Turner). But Rush, a lefty, boasts a musical sound all of his own, a high-lonesome cry that—since he simply flips the guitar over, without restringing it—focuses on the high strings closer to his playing hand.

And the pent-up emotion of having endured so many stops and starts gives Rush a fierce buoyancy. On “Live in Europe," he plays chorus after shattering, brilliantly constructed chorus, sometimes nearly a dozen times, unwilling to let the moment go.

In this way, “Live In Europe" proves as vibrant as it is poignant. Rush kept trying for the big comeback over the years, even earning a well-deserved Grammy award for 1998's “Any Place I'm Going" but suffered a stroke five years later.

The now-75-year-old hasn't released an album of new content, nor mounted a major tour, since 2004.

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