October 2000

Otis Spann - Last Call
Mr. Cat Music MCAT1014
Released: 2000

by John Crossett

Musical Performance ****
Recording Quality **1/2
Overall Enjoyment ****

[Reviewed on CD]Otis Spann. Just the mention of that name will cause any blues lover to smile, lighting up his face at the thought of the rich recorded legacy that Spann left us -- both on his own and as a member of Muddy Waters' band. But that smile will fade with the remembrance that Spann left us all too soon, in 1970 at the age of 40. What a joy, then, to have in hand the last live performance of blues pianist Spann, preserved for us by Spann’s last guitarist Peter Malick (now the president of Mr. Cat Music), recorded only a few days after Spann had been released from Cook County Hospital in the final stages of terminal liver cancer and less than three weeks before his death. But don’t think for a minute that Spann was not in top form for this concert -- even though he was no longer able to sing -- he could, and did, play a mean blues piano. For this concert, his wife, Lucille, and guitarist Luther "Georgia Boy" "Snake" Johnson handled the singing.

There is a real sense of longing -- an aching feeling of deep regret that permeates Last Call -- it will reach deep down into the depths of your soul and leave you with a lasting impression of just what the blues really are. This is 2:00-AM-Saturday-morning, my-girlfriend-left-me-my-dog-just-died-and-I-got-fired-yesterday music. In other words; this is the blues.

From the opening number, "Country Girl," to the last notes of "My Man," Spann and his band -- Peter Malick on guitar, Ted Parkins on bass and Richard Ponte on drums, with vocals by Lucille Spann and Luther Johnson, who also plays guitar on four of the tracks -- lay down a groove that surely kept the small audience swaying and nodding with appreciation. Spann revisits some classic blues on Last Call, such as Muddy Waters’ "Long Distance Call" and "I’ve Got My Mojo Working," as well as his own compositions "My Baby" and "I Wonder Why." Each of the nine tracks is imbued with a sense of something coming -- something that could not be stopped, something that Spann was resigned to -- and that allowed him to pour everything he had left into this, his final performance. As an added bonus, there is an extra track Malick recorded as a tribute to Spann called, appropriately enough, "Blues For Otis" that is a fitting closure to Last Call.

If you’re the kind of person who wants his CDs to be perfectly quiet, with no back ground noise, you can stop right here, click your "Back" button, and read any of the other fine reviews in this month’s issue. This disc is not for you. There is audible tape hiss and other assorted nasties at the start and throughout Last Call. While these do not detract from the music, they are there, lurking, waiting for a quiet space to make their presence known. If you, like me, are a blues fan, these maladies will not bother you in the least. The opportunity to hear Otis Spann one last time will be enough to overcome sound just slightly better than bootleg quality. Last Call was also recorded in stereo; however, it is of the late ‘50s/early ‘60s variety stereo, with the musicians panned hard right and left. It has almost no depth of field. You get the vocals coming out of the left channel and the guitar out of the right, not really a problem until Luther Johnson is the lead singer/guitarist; then it becomes somewhat unnatural. But there is a certain rawness to the sound that will put you in mind of the real thing.

I’ve heard some fine-sounding blues recordings, but not one of them gives off the feeling, the power, the life of Last Call. Don’t miss it.