Original album Liner Notes:
The idea to record an album with Jim Liban hit me in 2013 during a Sunday afternoon gig in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I hadn’t played with the harmonica legend in a few years, and the last time we shared the stage in 2010 it seemed like he was tiring of it all. After nearly fifty years in the music business and a recent period of personal tragedies and loss, Jim was quietly withdrawing from the music scene. But it was obvious that afternoon, that time had healed a few wounds. The fire, soul and harmonica mastery were still there as strong as ever; and we went on to rock the crowd just like the old days. It was clear from the first note I heard that day—Jim Liban was back, and I knew we needed to make a record.
I called Jim the next day in a manic state and left a rambling message on his answering machine (yes, Jim still has an answering machine). I told him that I wanted to produce a record for him, and that he should come down to Chicago and record it with my band at Hi-Style Studio. We would dust off some of his old original tunes. We would record together in the same room with vintage gear and small amps like the blues records we love. We would do everything our way and make a traditional—and original—blues album. Jim called me back the next day and responded to my grandiose idea with his signature dry wit, “Does this mean I have to buy new harps?”
In the mid ‘90s, Jim Liban was the first person to hire me to play guitar in a working band. I started commuting to Milwaukee from Madison several times a week to play shows all over Wisconsin. Jim was a consummate harmonica player, singer, entertainer and blues historian. I felt a real synergy between us when we played. His set was the perfect balance of soul and energy, and he taught me how to tastefully entertain without pandering to the audience and compromising the music. But I was in my twenties, had a mean blues purist streak, and of course thought I knew everything; and after a couple of years of too much traveling and an endless string of rough small town gigs, I grew tired of the “Cheese Circuit” and we quietly parted ways. I set my sights on Chicago, and my stint with Jim became a memory. But it was one that I came to appreciate more as I grew older and realized that as harmonica players go—they didn't get much better than Jim Liban.
As a teenager in the mid 1960s, Jim Liban picked up the harmonica and became obsessed with the blues. This was at the beginning of the ‘60s blues revival, but the music was still very much alive for black audiences. Jim would scour local record stores for all the newest blues 45s and LPs. Too young to get into clubs, he started making trips to Maxwell Street in Chicago to see the music up close and in person. He started sitting in with blues legends at the Avant Garde coffeehouse in Milwaukee, playing sets with the likes of Big Joe Williams, Sleepy John Estes, Arthur Crudup, Yank Rachel and Big Walter Horton.
In 1968 it was time to make a move and Jim’s band, The New Blues, moved to San Francisco to be in the thick of the ‘60s music scene. They crashed at Steve Miller’s pad to get a start; and after changing their name to A.B. Skhy, they were soon opening up for the big psychedelic acts of the day. One night at The Whisky a Go Go in LA, Jimi Hendrix sat in and jammed with them for a few songs. Jim Liban remembers, “literally going eyeball to eyeball” with the guitar icon while trading licks on “Hoochie Coochie Man.” After a mention from Hendrix in Billboard Magazine about up-and-coming bands to look out for, A.B. Skhy got a contract from MGM Records. During the recording sessions, Jim was becoming increasingly disenchanted with the psychedelic direction they were taking. His blues purist streak and artistic temperament would often shine at inopportune times, and Jim walked out of the band in the middle of the record and moved back to Milwaukee. Though he has no regrets, this was just one episode in a music career with its share of near misses.
In 1969, Jim settled in Milwaukee and for the next fifteen years his band, Short Stuff, established itself as one of the most popular and hardest working bands in the area. With Jim leading the band and sharing vocal duties with keyboardist Junior Brantley, Short Stuff created a crowd-pleasing mix of Chicago blues, funk and soul. In the early ‘80s, they tired of keeping up with the times; and Jim dissolved the band to take some time off. After a stint in Nashville to be a songwriter and sideman, Jim wanted to get back to playing some blues. In 1988 he returned to Milwaukee and played for years as The Jim Liban Blues Combo. This is where our paths first crossed in 1994.
Twenty years later, making a record with Jim Liban would become one of the more meaningful projects of my career. To start production, I told Jim I needed to hear some of his old songs. I drove up to Milwaukee to hang out and didn’t realize I would return to Chicago with a shopping bag full of thirty years worth of cassette tapes. Jim Liban is a prolific songwriter. He has written songs recorded by John Mayall, Johnny Winter, Lonnie Brooks, The Legendary Blues Band, Little Charlie and The Nightcats and many others. I thought producing the great American blues record sounded like a glamorous endeavor, but the project soon became three months of me sitting next to a Radio Shack cassette player with a pen and a pile of Post-it notes.
I gave Jim a list of about thirty tunes I wanted to mess around with, and this started the process of recording demos in my apartment. It was a labor of love reworking and updating his songs, and Jim was very receptive to making new arrangements of songs that went back decades. When it was time to go into the studio with Beau Sample, Alex Hall, Mark Haines and Matt Liban, we were ready to record the blues album that I have always wanted to make.
“I Say What I Mean” is not just a comeback. It is a snapshot of a life in 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.
These fourteen original blues songs are proof that Jim Liban says what he means, and indeed means just what he says.
– Joel Paterson