Today’s installment in the ongoing monthlong celebration of all things epic is a mammoth thirty-track career retrospective by one of the giants of Chicago blues guitar. Dave Specter is not as well known outside the Windy City as he deserves to be, but the mammoth double album Six String Soul: 30 Years on Delmark – streaming at Spotify – should go a long way to bring this eclectic, purist player to an audience beyond the diehard blues crowd.
This is a feel-good story: career sideman, revered by his peers, finally decides to front a band rather than just being the guy that everybody in town seems to turn to when they need a sizzling solo. But the side of Specter we most often get to see here is the erudite, purposeful player who’s more interested in telling a story and keeping the crowd at the edge of their seats. Beginning with his work in the early 90s, it’s fascinating to watch him expand his sound, from a terse, Larry Burton-esque mutability, through more intricate, jazz-inspired style and then a fiery return to his 80s roots. Specter is fluent in more styles than you can count, but he’s not a riffbag guy stealing other peoples’ licks: when there are multiple guitarists on a track, there’s no mistaking which one is Specter.
The album opens with an unexpectedly careening, briskly swinging 1991 tune with Specter and Ronnie Earl backing Barkin’ Bill Smith. The final cut is Specter’s simmering, gut-wrenching protest anthem The Ballad of George Floyd, which might be the single most powerful blues song released in the past year.
In between, we get a capsule history of a style of music which on one hand was concretized a long, long time ago, but which Chicago musicians keep reinventing in all kinds of interesting ways. There are plenty of live tracks here, which is where Specter is most in his element (and to his credit, his studio work here is a cut above so many of the great artists of the 90s whose albums were rush jobs helmed by hack engineers and producers).
There’s Sweet Serenity, a swinging soul-gospel number from 1995 with Tad Robinson on vocals. There’s This Time I’m Gone For Good, a slow-burning, anguished soul song with Otis Clay out front, Specter channeling a little Wes Montgomery and some ferocious Otis Rush chord-torturing. There’s Seventy-Four, a slow ballad with Specter swooping and diving around, taking two long solos and building to a fiery, circling coda behind singer Willie Kent.
Specter excels at instrumentals, and there are plenty here. The Stinger is one of the best, a latin funk mashup of Chris Thomas King and Otis Rush, if you can imagine all that. Wind Chill, with Dez Desormeaux on tenor sax, Ken Saydak on organ and Ronnie Earl on guitar is a minor-key gem, part late 60s South Side soul, part Wes Montgomery and part state-of-the-art for the 90s. Specter’s Walk is a brisk, bittersweet stroll; Riverside Ride offers a nod back at summery Steve Cropper Muscle Shoals soul, but with Chicago grit. There’s also a caffeinated, burning take of Magic Sam’s Riding High.
Taken from a live set with Floyd McDaniel, the version of St. Louis Blues here veers from a suspenseful mashup of Wes Montgomery and klezmer, veering back and forth to straight-up ba-bump drive. Specter throws a hilarious quote from Thelonious Monk in toward the end. There are more references to Otis Rush and also Elmore James in Specter’s chordal attack in Get Back Home.
Unleavened Soul ,with Brother Jack McDuff on organ, is a light-fingered bossa blues, again with hints of klezmer plus a low key soulful John Brumbach tenor sax. McDuff chooses his spots; trumpeter Rob Mazurek displays unusual restraint and modal intensity.
The tradeoff between solos from Lurrie Bell to Specter in Bell’s You’re Gonna Be Sorry is a clinic in tasteful playing. Backing Sharon Lewis’ vengeful vocals, Specter finds the least expected stepping-off point to drive In Too Deep to a bellicose peak.
By the time the story reaches the second disc, it’s 1998 and Specter is filling out the space behind crooner Larry Lynn with an unhurried upward trajectory toward a similarly smart Rob Waters organ solo. Right after that we’re treated to Texas Top, a casually paced, expertly assembled update on Booker T instrumental soul, Waters again reaffirming the high level of company Specter typically hangs with.
The most inspiring number on the second disc is March Through the Darkness. a heartwarming, Memphis-style soul anthem written in 2019 in protest of Trump-era divide-and-conquer, although it has even more relevance at at time when we’re we shaking off genuine totalitarianism. Considering how Specter has stepped out as a frontman, as he celebrates in The Blues Ain’t Nothing with Jorma Kaukonen. this is a great gateway to the rest of Specter’s discography and reason to look forward to whatever he comes up with next.