Last Call

Otis Spann

Mr. Cat Music, 2000

REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 10/10/2000

The more I write about the blues, the more it seems like the discs I review have their basis in tragedy. Last Call, a new release featuring recordings from the final concerts by blues pianist Otis Spann, is no exception. Recorded less than a month before his death, it is a miracle that these songs can be heard at all.

Lost for 25 years, the tapes from Spann's final gig at Boston Teaparty (this particular show recorded April 2, 1970) were discovered in storage in California, not too much the worse for wear. On these can be heard the man whom some call the greatest Chicago blues pianist... something I'm not too sure about.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Oh, don't get me wrong; I'm not calling into question the man's abilities or decrying his performances here on Last Call. But Spann's piano work is often lost in the mix, buried behind the two-guitar attack of Peter Malick and Luther "Snake" Johnson or the vocals of his wife Lucille and Johnson. (Spann's illness left him unable to sing, according to Malick's liner notes.) Yes, it's amazing that these tapes defied the odds and are still with us today. But when I'm listening to the last musical testament of Spann's, I'd like to have heard more of what made the man so special. (I also found it strangely interesting that Lucille Spann makes the claim from onstage that her husband was suffering from "laryngitis", which is why he wasn't singing. Maybe the fact the man was dying was no one's damn business.)

On the average, the blues presented on Last Call is more plodding, though the band knows how to kick up the energy when needed ("Get On Down To The Nitty Gritty," "I Got My Mojo Working," "Stomp With Spann"). Word of advice: if you have a splitting headache, skip "My Baby," featuring the blues shrieks of Lucille Spann. I made that mistake, and undid the work of two industrial-strength Tylenol caplets in just seven minutes.

Tacked on to the end of this show is "Blues For Otis," a song Malick recorded for his 1998 release Wrong Side Of My Life. At first, I questioned its appearance. I mean, this is Malick's label and all, but isn't its inclusion more of an advertisement for his own disc? And yet, this track seemed to belong, as the piano line on it tended to invoke Spann's ghost. If you didn't know better, you'd swear it was Spann himself tickling the keys.

Last Call is an interesting, yet sad, portrait of another blues artist who didn't earn his proper acclaim in his lifetime. And yet it seems like Spann takes the back seat so the other musicians in his band could have a chance to shine. Who knows? Maybe Spann would have wanted it that way.

Rating: B-

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