For every band that manages to find their way to bigger and bigger stages before finally hitting the big time, there are countless equally, if not more talented groups who came within a hair’s breadth of fame. It seems every major city and town has their local legends who very nearly opened for Led Zeppelin or Nirvana or the White Stripes. Or those who had a record deal on the table only to have the label balk at the last minute, bringing to an unceremonious end any existing dreams of rock stardom. While certainly unfortunate, there is often a very good reason why certain groups fail to make an impression beyond their local scene.
That said, given the overwhelming desire on the part of collectors for obscure and overlooked regional treasures, many of these groups are finally being granted something of a chance at wider exposure. And thanks to the digitization of music, this proliferation of previously unheard acts has continued to grow at a staggering rate. While not every unearthed group or album is worth further consideration or critical reevaluation, there do appear from time to time groups worthy of broader exposure.
Casting their lot into the game, Smog Veil Records deliver a lovingly curated and exhaustively documented collection of Cleveland’s Mr. Stress Blues Band, Live at the Brick Cottage 1972-1973. Named for a psych ward code for a patient whose medication was no longer fulfilling its intended function, the Mr. Stress Blues Band was the purview of one Bill “Mr. Stress” Miller. In the oral history collected within the album’s liner notes, Miller, who passed away last year, is presented as Cleveland’s answer to John Mayall, gathering talented musicians who would pass through the group, playing for a time and always gaining a deep education in modern electric blues. An impressive list of former members by any measure, MSBB saw, among others, Chrissie Hynde, Peter Laughner, Anton Fier, Vito San Filippo, and the majority of James Gang filter through the ranks.
Possessing a tough, working-class voice at times not far removed from early Bob Seger, Miller here proves a dominant presence on stage as he tears into a handful of blues tracks, his big, brassy voice augmented by his wailing harp. From the opening “How Many More Years” on, it’s clear the members of MSBB see themselves as the real thing – despite the self-deprecating tagline of “the more you drink, the better we sound.” Far from mere blues rock posturing, they show a clear reverence for Chicago-style blues with a heavy emphasis on the groove.
With “How Many More Years,” here clocking in at nearly ten minutes – a bold choice for an opening track – they show themselves to be well-versed in the modern electric blues vocabulary, tearing into solo after solo while maintaining a steady sense of forward momentum. It serves as a fine introduction to the skill of each member of the band and, despite its length, manages to just miss overstaying its welcome.
From there, MSBB embark on a series of fairly standard, though well-played, interpretations of modern electric blues by the likes of Howlin’ Wolf, BB King, Muddy Waters and Jimmy Reed. Given the sheer number of groups attempting a similar feat around the time of these recordings both here and abroad, it’s not terribly surprising that MSBB did not break through to a wider audience. That said, they prove themselves equal to, if not better than, the lion’s share of electric blues and blues rock bands recording at the same time – black or white.
As race is the stigma against which white blues musicians constantly struggle in terms of authenticity and right to perform, MSBB blow this unnecessary concern away from the start. Should there be any doubt, one only needs to put on “Walkin’ Through The Park” and be able to identify the geographic or racial origin of the performance. It’s a driving bit of gritty blues that helps solidify the case for MSBB’s celebration as local heroes within the Cleveland music scene of the late-‘60s/early-‘70s. Far from perfunctory, it’s a rollicking performance that, at times, places them in league with the Allman Brothers.
Unlike “How Many More Years,” the slow blues shuffle of “Sweet Little Angel” does, at just over ten minutes, overstay its welcome. Despite their best efforts to the contrary, there is only so much that can be said and done over a standard I-IV-V progression at something approaching half the tempo of the rest of the performances. That it takes up a fair amount of the collection’s second side is a bit of a detriment to the album as a whole, however it does manage to show something of their stylistic versatility.
Given the nature of the performances and the admittedly lo fi quality of these live recordings, it can become difficult differentiating one track from another. But this does not appear to be much of a concern, their aim having been more to keep the dance floor full, the bar crowded and the proprietors of the titular Brick Cottage happy. Hearing these recordings more than forty years later, it’s impossible not to picture the scene of a crowded bar as patrons move about in an ever-thickening haze of smoke and sweat.
In the end, there’s nothing truly revelatory on Live at the Brick Cottage 1972-1973, but for pure workmanlike blues, it has much to offer. Furthermore, that they might now have the chance to find an audience beyond their beloved home turf has got to come with a certain amount of pride. And as well they should: Mr. Stress Blues Band might’ve missed out on their chance to open for Led Zeppelin (and Sun Ra on the same bill!), but this collection is a testament to the legend as being based in fact. On any given night they very well may have been good enough to go toe-to-toe with the best in the business. As it stands, those who were there will now have something on which to base their claims that Mr. Stress Blues Band was maybe not the best damn band around, but certainly the best damn band in town.
Artist: Mr. Stress Blues Band
Album: Live at the Brick Cottage, 1972-1973
Label: Smog Veil Records
Release Date: May 13, 2016