14 tracks / 53:31
Delmark Records has done blues fans a few favors this year as they re-released classic blues records that have previously been unavailable in the digital world. First there was Queen Sylvia and John Embry’s Troubles, and now we get Steve Freund and Gloria Hardiman’s Set Me Free, both of which were originally published by Chicago’s Razor Records. This 1983 Freund/Hardiman album has been hidden for too long, and it is quite a collector’s item.
Steve Freund is a legendary Bay Area bluesman, guitarist, and producer, but he was based out of Chicago when he cut Set Me Free, his first album. It was also Hardiman’s vocal debut as she jumped into the music scene after the birth of her twins, and her chemistry with Steve was magical. They were backed by a killer team from the Windy City that was made up of Ken Saydak on piano and organ, the legendary Sunnyland Slim on piano, Sam Burckhardt on sax, Bob Stroger and Harlan Terson on bass, and Eddie Turner on the skins. Those truly were the good old days!
Right from the first track, “You Got Me (Where You Want Me),” it is apparent that Freund had left his Brooklyn upbringing behind, as only a Chicagoan can make this kind of blues. His guitar work is razor sharp and his timing is impeccable, things that would make him welcome in any blues band. The other eye-opener is how unbelievable it is that this is Hardiman’s first album because her voice is powerful and sassy, with a confidence that is contagious.
Sunnyland Slim makes his first appearance on Jimmy Rogers’ slow-rolling “That’s All Right.” Freund was Slim’s guitarist back then, and this is fortunate as his presence on this disc is a real treat. It is neat to hear this song sung from a woman’s perspective, and Gloria nails it. Also, Freund’s guitar is played with perfect phrasing and feel over the rock solid backline of Stroger on bass and Fred Grady on the drums. These guys also pitch in on the Slim’s other songs: the original instrumental “Jammin’ with Sam” and Guitar Slim’s “The Things I Used to Do.” Surprisingly, this last song is the only time that Freund takes the vocals on this album, and he does Guitar Slim proud with his wailing tenor.
Hardiman gets to shine on nine of the tracks, though, and her most notable contribution is on King Curtis’ “Let Me Down Easy.” Gloria had a strong gospel background before she hooked up with Steve, and she brought this with a heart dose of soul as Ken Saydak rolled out a gospel-inspired piano accompaniment. A close second is her respectful take on Aretha Franklin’s “Dr. Feelgood,” which will give you goosebumps.
Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson’s “Kidney Stew Blues” is the final song from the original release, and this instrumental is one of the standout tracks of the album. Harlan Terson holds down a solid bass line on this one as Saydak and Freund trade leads with Sam Burckhardt’s sublime tenor saxophone. This is some of the finest instrumental blues that you will come across.
The original album had ten tracks, but the CD re-issue lists four bonus songs that include the previously unreleased “Homework” and “Kiddio” and two songs from a Ken Saydak 45 record (remember those?), “Shoppin’ and Snackin’” and “Swanee River Boogie.”
It must have been a hard choice to leave the first two songs off the original cut of Set Me Free, but perhaps their 1960s sound just did not fit in when all was said and done. Gary Heller and Freund get a few good guitar licks in on Otis Rush’s “Homework,” but Hardiman takes the lead with a firm hand and gorgeous supporting vocals from Diane Homes and Gail Washington. And Brook Benton’s “Kiddio” is extra tight with honkytonk piano from Saydak and hard drum fills from Eddie Turner. Both of these tracks feature the extra cool harmonica stylings of Mr. Ron Sorin, and it is a shame that this is the first time his work on this project has been available to the public.
Chances are good that you never heard the two Ken Saydak songs before, and this is a fabulous opportunity. “Shoppin’ and Snackin’” is one of the funniest songs you will find, and Saydak goes all the places musicians fear to tread, singing about patriotism, race and religion in his pleasant tenor range. Of course he does it with his piano supporting him, not to mention a solid guitar performance from Bob Levis. “Swanee River Boogie” brings the disc to a close, and Saydak does a wonderful job on this instrumental that turns out at least as good as Fats Domino’s version. His piano work stands on its own in this solo performance, and he can certainly throw down a serious boogie that could shake a piano to pieces.
This is an incredible album, and it is easy to see how it propelled Steve Freund into a stellar career that includes seven of his own albums and production credit on dozens more. But it is also a wonderful snapshot in time, with heart wrenching vocals from Gloria Hardiman, phenomenal keys from Ken Saydak, and a chance to hear Sunnyland Slim accompanied by a certifiably dangerous band. There is a good reason why the original LP is so collectible and this CD is a must-have for any blues collection. If you are a fan of the genre I guarantee that you will listen to it more than once!