The white car with the license plates that proclaim in bold letters, BAD AXE, pulled up to the side door of the Lakeside Ballroom in Waconia (located about 15 minutes west of Chanhassen). The "Bad Axe" references Frank "Son" Seals’ 1994 Alligator release and his reputation as a ferocious guitar player. I think it is safe to call Son Seals a living blues legend. He certainly is a blues survivor—on several accounts. Thanks to Dr. Robert Bosak, Son is back singing and performing after his brush with death two years ago. Bosak is the doctor who reconstructed Son’s jaw after he was shot in the face in 1997 by his now former wife. If that wasn’t enough, this past year Son lost part of his left leg due to complications from diabetes. It wasn’t all that long after his surgery that he was back performing just like always. In fact, Son Seals feels he has a new lease on life. He is in better physical shape (despite the loss of his leg) than he has been in years.
Another marked difference was displayed in his performance. Usually you won’t see many smiles on Son’s face during a performance. Not so during this show. His usual intense, brooding and forbidding facial expression was transformed into a radiant beam for most of the night. Partly due to the abundant admiration and love that the packed house of fans was showing him and partly due, I think, to his unflagging optimism and new outlook on life. And his singing and playing are as inspired as I have seen him display in years. "If you really want to do something that's worth something," says Son, "you've got to give it your all. I try to do that every time I play." That certainly was the case at this show. Son attacked his guitar playing with an inventive intensity, displaying his impeccable timing, creative, soulful licks and pure emotion. His husky, deep growling vocals were also strong and passionate. So Son Seals is back—stronger than ever—playing his singular brand of inspired blues.
This was also a special evening for the couple who sponsored the show. Son was originally booked to perform at the private 40th birthday party for John McDonald and his wife Andrea (longtime friends of Son and Anna Wright, Son’s manager and significant other). When word got out that Son Seals would be coming to Minnesota for a private party (one of only two performances for Son during the month of November), well, there was just too much interest and the overwhelming response helped the McDonald’s decide to open up the show to everyone. What a great gesture and fortunate for all of us who attended this remarkable show.
Son, who is waiting for a prosthetic leg to be completed next month (a loyal fan from New York is helping with that), finds the change somewhat of a hindrance as he is used to standing while he performs. He now has to sit on a stool and his range of motion is thus somewhat restricted. Even though he uses crutches to get around he still has difficulty going up and down stairs without railings so he is looking forward to the new leg. Willie Dixon had his leg amputated but performed for the last 25 years of his life with a prosthetic leg and no one knew the difference. The Dixon family has been very supportive to Son in this regard.
Another major change in Son’s life (on an artistic level), is his recent signing with Telarc Records. The change from Alligator to Telarc was mostly made to give Son more creative control of his music and wait ‘till you hear the new album which finished recording recently and is due out in the year 2000. Telarc also plans to market Son in a manner fitting his legendary status. Junior Wells was with Telarc (Son and Junior were like brothers) and he used to tell Son how happy he was with them.
Born in Osceola, Arkansas in 1942, Son had the unique experience of living with his family in the rooms behind his fathers Juke Joint. His father Jim, a well known musician himself, was able to draw some of the biggest names in blues to play at his club. With seminal bluesmen like Albert King, Robert Nighthawk and Sonny Boy Williamson playing every night on the other side of his bedroom wall, young Frank "Son" Seals was literally immersed in the blues practically before he could even walk.
Even with this "who’s who" of the blues playing in his father’s club every weekend, it was Son’s father Jim who was his biggest musical inspiration and teacher. "My father taught me everything from the start," Son recalls. "Tuning the guitar, fingering. Where I wanted to be rifling around all up and down the neck right away, he'd keep me on one chord for hours, until I could feel it in my sleep. I'd get up the next morning, grab the guitar, and I'd be right on that chord." Learning to play both the guitar and drums, by his teens Son was fronting his own band during the week and backing up the touring blues musicians at his dad’s club (on drums) on the weekends. This exposure led to Son hitting the road playing drums with both Earl Hooker and Albert King (with whom he recorded the seminal Stax album Live Wire/Blues Power).
By 1971 Son had moved to Chicago to make a name for himself and it wasn’t long before he was jamming with the likes of Junior Wells (who became one of Son’s closest friends), Buddy Guy, James Cotton and Hound Dog Taylor (taking over Hound Dog's regular weekend gigs at The Expressway Lounge on Chicago's South Side when Taylor began touring after the successful release of his debut album—also Alligator Records' first album). Just 2 short years later in 1973 Son released his first album (Alligator’s third release) and immediately shot to national prominence. Robert Palmer, writing in The New York Times, called him "the most exciting young blues guitarist and singer in years."
For the past 26 years since the release of his debut album, Son Seals has released a string of very successful albums on Alligator, toured the world and developed one of blues’ most loyal fan bases. On February 7, 1998 he was named Chicago Blues Entertainer of 1997 at the 17th annual Chicago Music Awards. The sheer power and emotion of the legendary "Bad Axe’s" playing is at its peak and I think we can look for some exciting things to come from Son Seals in the coming new year.
This review is copyright © 1999 by Ray Stiles, and Blues On Stage, all rights reserved. Copy, duplication or download prohibited without written permission. Photography copyright © 1999 by Tom Asp, all rights reserved. Copy, duplication or download prohibited without written permission.