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Black Magic Man (Chicago Tribune)

Greg Kot, Tribune rock critic.

It was on Chicago-style blues that Peter Green built his reputation as one of the pre-eminent British rock guitarists of the '60s, and it was to the city that first inspired him that Green returned for the first time in nearly 30 years Sunday.

As Green and his four-piece Splinter Group took the stage at the Park West, the audience buzzed with a mixture of reverence and anticipation, tinged by the uncertainty engendered by Green's abrupt departure from Fleetwood Mac in 1970 to take up gardening.

Despite occasional comebacks since then, Green has been in and out of mental institutions and even jail as he sought to wean himself of drugs and the aftershocks of rock stardom.

In his absence, the legend has only grown, with a steady stream of reissues, tribute albums and a biography.

In recent years, he has been coaxed back into performing, but this time on his own terms.

A recent album, "The Robert Johnson Songbook," presents Green and the Splinter Group performing low-key acoustic tunes by the Delta blues pioneer, and the Park West set used that as a springboard.

The good news was that Green was back in electric mode, leaning into his solos with increasing confidence as the nearly two-hour concert progressed.

More disconcerting was that Green's voice sounded shot, a gray ghost of the virile blues shouter he once was. Yet in its place has come an almost playful subtlety, which the excellent Splinter Group allowed to bubble to the surface with its empathetic support.

Backed by longtime friends, in particular guitarist Nigel Watson, Green showed no ill effects of his arduous struggle back to the stage.

If he was a bit tentative on some songs, it seemed by design--he showed less interest in re-creating his Fleetwood Mac material than in performing classic blues by the likes of Johnson and Slim Harpo.

A nine-minute version of his "Black Magic Woman" found him laying back while Watson mimicked his original lead lines, then joining his sidekick for an extended coda that took the Latin rhythm into more ethereal territory.

Gentler too was Green's revisiting of "Green Manalishi," a psychedelic masterpiece that presaged his descent into madness.

Watson played most of Green's leads, while the master guitarist contented himself with counterpoint melody.

A similar strategy was employed on "Rattlesnake Shake," an ode to onanism cooled down from the original with Watson again at the forefront.

But Green also demonstrated that he can still take charge. His duet with Watson on the instrumental "Albatross," yet another Mac standard, was heavenly, the guitars floating between Hawaiian rapture and West Coast cool jazz, while drummer Larry Tolfree worked his kit with delicate mallet volleys.

When sinking into the blues, Green found a comfort level that suited him well, with incisive, Otis Rush-style leads on "Going Down" and gutsy harp work on Sonny Boy Williamson's "Help Me."

"You got to help me/I can't do it all by myself," sang Green, as if acknowledging how far he has come in the last few years. What a treat to finally see him not only healthy, but taking joy in his ability to play the blues like few men ever have.