For somebody who is so identified with the blues, Jim Liban is a happy man.
"People say that the blues are all about sorrow and trouble, but there’s a lot that is joyous in blues music," Liban said. "It’s very happy music that gets people bobbing in their seats and up and dancing."
As Liban celebrates his 50 years in the world of music, he is given to a bit of reflection about his career, where he’s been and the comfortable place where he is now.
It is perhaps fitting that this is a time for reflection, as he has just released his first album in 10 years ("I Say What I Mean" on Ventrella Records) and is about to be the honoree of a star-studded party honoring those 50 years. The party is set for Shank Hall on Sunday, Oct. 26. Tickets are $10 in advance and $12 at the door with all proceeds going to a charity of Liban’s choice. The event runs from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m.
Liban has had quite a 50 years. He’s been up and down and up and down and up. He’s faced substance abuse, charlatan promoters, empty promises, dark and dingy clubs, big stages, European tours, the death of a loved one, some racial uncertainties and eventually his present state of comfort.
If that sounds like a blues song, it’s because his life has been like a great tune. And it’s always been about the tunes for Liban as you can see for yourself from this 2012 gig in St. Croix.
"I started playing the harmonica when I was about 14 or so," he said over a recent lunch at Simple Cafe. "I was captured by the way it fit into the world of rock ‘n’ roll. The British invasion really kicked my interest up, and I was hooked. It was in my gut. The stories just grabbed me. That’s the thing about the blues. There are stories to tell."
Thus began a journey filled with highlights and lowlights. The highlights are easiest to talk about.
"I was playing at the Whisky A Go Go in L.A., and Jimi Hendrix sat in and jammed with us," Liban recalled. "I remember going eyeball to eyeball with him while trading licks on 'Hoochie Coochie Man.'"
He’s been in bands that went to the West Coast and the Milwaukee band Short Stuff which many critics consider one of the best blues bands ever.
"We came close to making it big," Liban said. "But I was involved with substance abuse, and I always seemed to do something to sabotage the plans and offers."
Short Stuff did mark one of the most wonderful musical collaborations you’ve ever seen, with Liban and keyboardist Junior Brantley. It was as if the two men were meant to be on stage together for a lifetime. Brantley, now 77, is going to be at the tribute gig on Oct. 26.
"It was magic," Liban said. "It was so special. It’s hard to explain but there was just something between the two of us that meshed perfectly."
Along the way in those 50 years, he’s gotten his share of accolades, but nothing means more to him than what other musicians say about his music.
Bob Margolin was Muddy Waters' guitar player for seven years and has maybe the best line ever trying to describe the blues. When Margolin joined the band, he says Waters told him, "trying to play these blues right will hurt like falling in love." Margolin has a huge amount of admiration for Liban.
"I remember being stunned by Jim's harp playing when Short Stuff opened for Muddy Waters in the mid-1970s," Margolin said. "We've run into each other a few times over the years, and I appreciate his musicianship more than ever. He is one of the most original and creative harp players I've ever heard."
"There are two kinds of harmonica players," said John Sieger, Milwaukee singer-songwriter. "One is like a gold-plated pimpmobile with lots of lights, a leatherette roof and lots of other doo-dads. It probably has a wet bar and a record player in the back. The other is a stripped down '32 ford coupe with a souped up V-8, a coat of primer, bucket seats and not much else. Jim Liban is the latter and will always leave the fancier model standing at the line eating his dust."
Joel Paterson, the Chicago guitar player who produced Liban's latest album, admits that the project was a clear labor of love.
""I Say What I Mean' is not just a comeback," he said. "It’s a snapshot of a life in the blues, a tribute to all of our blues heroes, a loving tribute to Jim’s late wife and a reunion with one of my heroes and first musical influences."
Liban has always stood out as a white guy in a world that is based in the heart of black gospel music and which was always the designated property of black music fans.
"Everybody knows that the blues is black music," Liban said. "And that’s caused me some discomfort over the years. Not any discrimination toward me or anything. But inside, like playing before a black crowd, I sometimes wondered if they’d take me seriously or if I’d be accepted. And then I was, and it made me very happy."
He admits that when he started, singing it sounded like "caterwauling," but he has grown into a warm and skilled blues singer. The history of those men who put their harp down to grab a microphone and sing is one of songs that come straight from the heart and travel slowly straight to an audience wrapped in fascination. That’s what Liban sings like.
His wife, Ann, died seven years ago, and it was then that he made the decision that so infuses his life now.
"I decided I was just going to do what I wanted to do," he said. "I wanted to be at peace. I don’t solicit gigs now. I only play when I want to and with who I want to."
His association with Paterson has resulted in this record, an unbelievable treat to listen to. Paterson is a highly respected and versatile guitar player who has played often with Liban.
"He suggested that we record something and asked me to give him some of the stuff I’d written," Liban said. "He left with a shopping bag full of cassette tapes and stuff. He went through all of it and finally we got it down to the 14 songs on the album."
One of the songs on the album is special to him. It’s called "Thanks for the Dance" and is dedicated to his wife. Listening to this song, you end up knowing everything about the 20 plus years he and Ann spent together. It’s may well be the most crystal clear music about a loving relationship you’ve ever heard.
Liban is revered by blues artists in this country and overseas, and he admits some of the adulation has come as a surprise.
"Traveling through Europe, I had all these young people come up to me and tell me how much they loved what I did and how lucky they were to see me live," he said. "The language didn’t matter. I knew what they said, and I was surprised by it."
Liban sees himself as part of the decades long thread that joins all the blues artists together.
"I guess I see myself as a bridge of sorts from the early guys like Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy and Charlie Musselwhite, to the younger guys coming up today," he said. "It’s kind of a nice position to be in. I’m pretty comfortable."
With a history in Milwaukee stretching back decades, Dave tries to bring a unique perspective to his writing, whether it's sports, politics, theater or any other issue.
He's seen Milwaukee grow, suffer pangs of growth, strive for success and has been involved in many efforts to both shape and re-shape the city. He's a happy man, now that he's quit playing golf, and enjoys music, his children and grandchildren and the myriad of sports in this state. He loves great food and hates bullies and people who think they are smarter than everyone else.
This whole Internet thing continues to baffle him, but he's willing to play the game as long as OnMilwaukee.com keeps lending him a helping hand. He is constantly amazed that just a few dedicated people can provide so much news and information to a hungry public.
Despite some opinions to the contrary, Dave likes most stuff. But he is a skeptic who constantly wonders about the world around him. So many questions, so few answers.