Graded on a Curve:
Mr. Stress Blues Band, Live at the Brick Cottage 1972-1973

Smog Veil Records has been dishing subterranean Ohio-related sounds for 25 years now, and the recent Platters du Cuyahoga initiative makes clear there’s no slowing the label down. Live at the Brick Cottage 1972 – 1973 by Mr. Stress Blues Band is the second volume in the series, offering a potent portrait of a Cleveland institution serving up no frills bar band blues, with rock flourishes kept largely in check, during a long residency at a rugged but well-remembered neighborhood joint. It’s a choice discovery for those passionate for the Buckeye u-ground and for lovers of early Paul Butterfield, Charlie Musselwhite, and their ’60s Chicago blues inspirations as well. It’s out on vinyl and compact disc May 13.

After two releases, the immediate impression given off by Platters du Cuyahoga is of considerable range in the excavation; volume one is Albert Ayler’s Ghosts Live at the Yellow Ghetto by X__X, a Cleveland punk unit featuring John D. Morton, a name surely familiar to some through his participation in one of the city’s finest and most uncompromising bands, the Electric Eels.

X__X spat out a pair of massive 45s on the Drome imprint back in ’78-’80, with the spastic, abrasive, and surly contents roped onto 2014’s X Sticky Fingers X comp LP. The Platters du Cuyahoga bow followed shortly thereafter; cut in August of ’14 and January of ’15, its concentrated intersection of punk and freedom clocks in short of 18 minutes with a beautifully hairy plunge into Cleveland-born saxophonist Albert Ayler’s signature tune as a centerpiece. Even with a municipality as a unifying factor, the distance between it and Live at the Brick Cottage can appear quite wide.

Deeper inspection proves otherwise however, for early in the Mr. Stress Blues Band’s Brick Cottage run the frequently shifting lineup included eventual Rocket from the Tombs/ Pere Ubu guitarist Peter Laughner, though it’s important to understand the outfit’s importance lay not in connections to punk/ new wave (Anton Fier, the common denominator with X__X, and Chrissie Hynde make a long list of participants) but as the creative vehicle for a man bowled over by the blues.

Vocalist and mouth harp maestro Bill “Mr. Stress” Miller, who passed last May 18, was the leader and sole constant of a group coalescing in 1966 and clearly inspired by Paul Butterfield’s work of the period. While Miller shared Butterfield’s (and Charlie Musselwhite’s) instrument, he was far from a mere imitator, and through changes in personnel and the spurning of a contract from Capitol Records in ’69 he remained in close proximity to the Windy City blues root into the ’70s and beyond.

Kenny Ruscitto’s drumming on the opening inspection of Howlin’ Wolf’s “How Many More Years” to the contrary, Mr. Stress favored the ‘60s Chicago sound as defined by Otis Rush, Buddy Guy, Magic Sam, and Junior Wells; like Wolf, Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson, and Little Walter before them, theirs was a music perfected in drinking establishments with very little in the way of fanfare.

Instead the appeal is that of local ritual; the obvious intent throughout the nearly ten minutes of “How Many More Years” is to get people dancing, for if the floor in front of the stage is full of movement than it’s safe to assume things are going well. Of course, being three sheets to the wind can make any handful of fifth-rate hacks come off as the be-all and end-all of organized sound making, but listening at home and stone cold sober Mr. Stress gets the job done.

“How Many More Years” does find them knocking the dust off, but after a solid electric piano solo by Mike “The Professor” Sands comes a burning guitar passage by Charlie “Pontiac Slim” Drazdik; Miller’s emotive singing avoids histrionics as his raw harp carries the track to its conclusion. Ruscitto’s rock/ R&B-inclined rhythmic attack works just fine, but I’ll admit to preferring the lighter touch of Dr. Pete Sinks on a Latin-tinged dive into Muddy’s “Walkin’ Through The Park.”

As detailed in Nick Blakey’s exhaustive liner notes, the difference in the two drummers’ styles is roughly comparable to John Bonham and Fred Below, and the contrast of a night in ’72 with Sinks and a year later with Ruscitto reveals the malleability of Miller’s vision. Meanwhile, Sands’ use of electric keyboard helps to cement Mr. Stress as a ground level endeavor; the type of locale employing their services was unlikely to have an acoustic piano on hand, and if they did the chances of it actually being in tune were basically nil.

Although Mr. Stress relied heavily on borrowed stuff they transcend cover band status, swooping up the relative urbanity of Bobby Bland’s “Good Time Charlie,” securing a true ensemble platform via Slim Harpo’s “Scratch My Back” and displaying breath of knowledge by adapting Amos Milburn’s chestnut “Chicken Shack Boogie” as their break song, though maybe the smoothest example of Miller’s acumen is a harmonica quotation of Otis Redding’s “Tramp” in the midst of a Allen Toussaint’s “Get Out of My Life Woman.”

Butterfield fans will know that one from East-West as folks with an elementary education in the electric blues will recognize a lively reading of Jimmy Reed’s “Big Boss Man.” Ruscitto serves these numbers well as the finesse of Sinks’ hands elevates the Miller showcase “I Feel So Bad” (originally by Chuck Willis and covered by Presley) and a lengthy L- closing excursion into B.B. King’s hit version of the standard “Black Angel Blues.”

The CD and vinyl download contain bonus tracks further illuminating the strengths of Miller and associates; B.B.’s “Rock Me Baby” oozes well-practiced assurance without suffering from the predictable, Albert King’s treatment of “Crosscut Saw” provides Ruscitto’s bass drum and Drazdik’s fretwork an opportunity to shine, Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Help Me” underlines Miller’s talent on mouth organ, and the oft-covered “Black Night” (written by Jesse Mae Robinson, the version referenced here by Savoy Brown) illustrates Mr. Stress’ comfort with material outside the 12-bar norm.

This album isn’t a jaw-dropper, and soaking up a gander of Miller and that briefcase full of harps on the sleeve should adequately prepare one for what’s in store. But over 100 players fortified his band across five decades, including six members of the James Gang, an O’Jay, and future collaborators with Dr. John and Anthony Braxton, so the scenario eclipses obsessive commemoration of a local hero.

Other recordings of Mr. Stress Blues Band exist, but Live at the Brick Cottage 1972 – 1973 is the earliest documentation of a guy who got innumerable patrons through an extensive succession of Saturday nights; he most certainly deserved more than opening gigs for Steppenwolf and Three Dog Night and getting arcane immortalization in a Pretenders’ lyric. Volume two of Platters du Cuyahoga gives him some deserved if sadly posthumous credit.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B+

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