The Avant Garde was a coffeehouse in Milwaukee, Wisconsin that played host to a variety of rock, blues, and folk performers in the '60s, and Windy City guitar wizard Magic Sam (aka Sam Maghett) rolled in to play a few sets in June 1968. A local kid with an interest in recording named Jim Charne showed up with a reel-to-reel machine and a couple of microphones, and he captured Magic Sam's show on tape; 45 years later, those tapes have finally been made public on the album Live at the Avant Garde, and given the relatively small amount of material that's surfaced on the late blues legend (who succumbed to a heart attack when he was just 32), this set is a very welcome find. Live at the Avant Garde has a decidedly different feel than Magic Sam Live, which preserved radio broadcasts from 1963 and 1964 and a 1969 appearance at the Ann Arbor Blues Festival; while those recordings blazed with intensity, this captures Magic Sam and his band in more laid-back form, playing a small, booze-free venue rather than a rowdy bar or a festival audience in the thousands. Magic Sam may be in a more relaxed temper here, but his guitar work is absolutely on point; Sam's agile, incisive lead work, his dazzling string bends, and his fiery solos in which he fires off notes with the precision of a machine gun are all on display, confirming Sam's status as one of the most exciting and underrated players on the Chicago blues scene at the end of the '60s. Here, Sam is backed by Big Mojo Elem on bass and Bob Richey on drums, and if the rhythm section mostly stays out of the way, they give the tunes a rock-solid foundation and leave plenty of room for Sam to strut his stuff. Also, while the material on Magic Sam Live suffers from rather dodgy recording quality, for an amateur audience tape recorded in 1968, Live at the Avant Garde sounds remarkably good, with the instruments sounding clean and rich and Sam's voice suffering just a touch of distortion from the PA system. Magic Sam never broke through to real stardom, but he made a big impression during his short time in the spotlight, and Live at the Avant Garde shows he never dogged it, not even on a coffeehouse gig in Wisconsin, hardly a show where a blues legend would be expected to pull out all the stops.
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AllMusic Review by Mark Deming