Al Miller

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By Bill Dahl
Harpist Al Miller’s blues timeline harks back nearly five decades. He’s had a frustrating habit of surfacing just long enough to cut loose with some succulent, stick-to-your-ribs traditional Chicago blues, only to recede into the shadows again for an extended stretch. The next time he pops up on the radar screen, he sounds just as fine as he ever did. This collection dates back to three sessions spread across 1999 and 2000 and was first released independently by Miller, who also served as its producer, but its appeal is timeless.Al Miller

Miller was a proud member of the early wave of young white Windy City blues musicians. He gigged on the South Side with veteran mandolinist Johnny Young and Chicago Slim in 1964 before falling in with a crew of snarling blues-rockers, the Dirty Wurds who recorded on Chess Records. Emigrating to the Bay Area, he traded licks for a while with guitar wizard Michael Bloomfield around the end of the decade. Real life interrupted Al’s blues ambitions after that; he returned home to start a family and earn a weekly paycheck at a day job. But Miller never hung up his harp or his musical dreams altogether. In 1995, he released his first Delmark CD, Wild Cards (I had the pleasure of writing the liner notes for that one).

That set utilized an all-star backing cast, several of whom returned for more musical action on Al’s …In Between Time sessions. They represent a who’s who of top Chicago blues sidemen, whether currently residing here or not: guitarists Dave Specter and Billy Flynn, pianists Ken Saydak and Barrelhouse Chuck, bassist Harlan Terson, and a cadre of drummers (the late Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, his son Kenny “Beedy Eyes” Smith, and Mike Schlick). This expansive aggregation knew instinctively what traditional Chicago blues is supposed to sound like, and they delivered the goods behind the harpist.

Miller exhibits excellent taste in covers on this album, reaching back for three numbers penned by his old friend Johnny Young as well as obscure gems by Jimmy McCracklin, Eddie Taylor, Percy Mayfield, and Elmore James. Though quite a capable singer, Miller brought in estimable guitarist John Primer to handle the vocal honors on B.B. King’s “I Need You So Bad,” Little Walter’s wry “Dead Presidents” (the only selection sporting a sax section), and Elmore James’ “1839,” adding to the fun and variety. There was room to lay down several rollicking instrumentals showcasing Miller’s mouth organ, Primer and Specter paid tribute to a long-gone (and too often-overlooked) Chicago guitar great on “Lawhorn Special.”

Five Miller originals run the stylistic gamut from the deeply introspective title track, an infectious rhumba-rocking “Old Friends,” and the romping “A Better Day” to the after-hours Chicago lament “Lake Michigan Waters” (a perfect chilly theme for these inclement winter nights, Flynn contributing a barrage of icy licks) and a throbbing, rock-slanted “Blizzard” (another ode to Chi-Town’s snowy climes) that closes out the 17-song set out on a surprising note. Whether amplifying his mouth organ or not, whether on diatonic or chromatic, Miller’s instrumental excursions display immaculate taste; never overplaying, he always adheres to the all-for-one, one-for-all ensemble approach characterizing postwar Chicago blues.

Seems like it’s about time that Al Miller takes his spot among Chicago’s blues harp elite.

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