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John Primer, Area 51, and the Future of the Blues

I suppose I could write a bunch of flowery prose and give you an enlightening treatise on what occurred Sunday, but there’s no need. Suffice to say, my first time out in a (hopefully) vaccinated, reasonably socially distanced crowd felt like it always did. After more than a year of the opposite, we’re seeing people get back out, and I remain optimistic that people have finally figured this shit out and will take the steps they need to do something about it.

But I digress, and I probably will several times through this. Those of you who received that cryptic message of my sojourn to Area 51 probably had some scratching their heads, and wondering what the hell was I doing in New Mexico? True, one of my uncles lived in Roswell for years, but that had nothing to do with it.

The proper title of this hidden place is “Area 51 of the Blues,” known to but a few. It is somewhere in the hills of Pennsylvania, where wi-fi service is not easily found and if there were no roads, it would be like Jurassic Park, only without the dinosaurs.

Our host is a good friend who has transformed a rustic place into a home that the wealthiest of folk would die for. It’s just a cool spot, where friends are welcome, you can hang, and listen to great music.

It’s not a select club—you can make invites but are sworn to secrecy, and you must take the blood oath with a rusty broken string from the guitar of Elmore James, that you say nothing about who he is, or just where you are. GPS can’t even find it, anyway, so yeah.

This is Otis. He rules the roost.

The blues is the passion of Otis' human, and us like-minded ones who travel, long distances, down winding, cracked, craggy and broken roads to get here. The best come here, and the price for the band, food, drink, and conversation is well worth it.

Whether you sat down front or took a cooler vantage point, you got to see a performance by a living legend of American blues, and I do NOT say that lightly. John Primer is one of the few remaining links to a past generation that played the blues in a way that to them was exciting and new, and yes, it gave birth to the music we all grew up on.

Primer is a Mississippi native, born in ’45 and eventually he made his way to Chicago. The people he played with, well, he reeled them off to me during our interview (hear this below). Already known around Chicago as a solid guitarist and singer, Primer was tapped by Willie Dixon to join Muddy Waters—his longtime group had left (to form the Legendary Blues Band), and Muddy needed to retool. Primer served as Waters’ last guitarist from 1980 to ’83.

I first saw Primer with Magic Slim and the Teardrops, for whom he played 13 years. I’d met him in 1996, but we weren’t introduced; Primer remembered the date, the place (the former Johnny D’s in Somerville, MA), and what we talked about! More on that in a second.

In recent years, while filling out a solo resume, Primer has also collaborated with harpist Bob Corritore, their latest work, The Gypsy Woman Told Me.

The set, which included Steve Bell on harmonica (of the Bell family, siblings, a father named Lurrie and a grandfather named Carey…do the research, folks) tapped into the Waters catalog, that of Junior Wells, but also other places, covers of “You Send Me” and “Rainy Night in Georgia,” different, but Primer delivered in his own style. The man’s voice hasn’t changed at all, and his rhythmic/lead style of guitar is not flashy or over the top. It’s a style that is Primer’s, and he makes it fit. (Note: this is a much better picture of the two from the 2019 Reading Blues works)

I wasn’t sure if Primer really wanted to talk with me, after a long day, signing CDs, posing for pics and selfies with the fans, but he did. We sat for 30 minutes; Primer remembered our first meeting, spoke with great fondness for Waters, Dixon, Magic Slim, and quite a few others. He also noted Corritore, a renowned harmonica player, needed to sing, something he just does not do.

Corritore, he added, also showed respect for those who came before, befriending aging artists such as Henry Gray, performing with them, and looking after them in later years.

Primer also spoke well of the new generations of blues artists, who perhaps step off from the blues, or into it, from the rock world. He was positive, unlike some who have felt an encroachment by younger artists who aren’t of that pedigree. Primer praised the musicianship, and noted, the blues will always be here, it does not go away, and everyone has ‘em.

The one thing he said we can do, keep playing the music, keep supporting the blues, however it’s played; I would say also, let us respect the music as they do, and remember where it all comes from.

The audience may well be aging out, when I consider the population of the small group at Area 51, and at the larger events, such as the upcoming Berks Jazz Festival, and its accompanying blues fest in November. I am happy, however, to see younger people seeking this music out. It’s not just a hipster, retro thing; you can buy into it, but that doesn’t buy you a feeling. You listen to this music, if you don’t get it, I’m surprised you feel a thing at all. I’m not going to bitch about today’s music, because that moves people in their own way, and while I don’t get that, at least they get something.

But I’ll tell you from experience: years ago, I watched Goths, kids young enough to be my kids, cool kids, others…when Muddy Waters shouted everything was gonna be all right, they listened. They heard it, they unconsciously fell into that beat, and they were transported, to Area 51, and elsewhere.

For myself, my musical skill isn’t in this vein; it’s not me. I try to write it. I tried to get it into “Searching for Roy Buchanan,” and hopefully the upcoming sequel “Call it Love” does the same.

I left just happy beyond words. An interview with no notes, no questions written down, nothing, turned out okay. The bonus was a new friend in Bev Conklin, who is a mighty fine singer in her own right, and to see old friends.

2021 is finally starting to feel like a real year...let's hope it stays that way, and we each do our part. You know what you gotta do. #ThinkAboutIt

Peace, Out.

(UPDATE--I put this together finally on Friday, after issues with the website. I just learned Nanci Griffith left us. An amazing singer and songwriter, who I had a lot of love and respect for. RIP, Nanci.)


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