Archive for the ‘Blues’ Category

Buddy Guy: Chicago blues, alive and real

May 7, 2008

This week I’m revisiting another album that fell into a technological black hole when I revamped my kitchen boombox sidebar blog sometime back. The amazing Buddy Guy Live: The Real Deal lives up to its name and then some.

Buddy Guy Live: The Real Deal

Buddy Guy takes a certain amount of heat for sometimes playing in the rock ‘n roll end of the blues pool. And I’ve read reviews of him pandering to the crowd with easy, crowd-pleasing pap like Mustang Sally. But when he gets it right, he nails it.

On this 1996 release recorded on his home turf—his club here in Chicago, Buddy Guy’s Legends—he gets it right. The back-up band is G.E. Smith and the Saturday Night Live Band [complete with the horn section], and they are in turn backed up by blues piano legend Johnnie Johnson. Not bad company.

Probably my favorite way to listen to live music is in a bar. This hour-long live album delivers the sound of that venue, right down to appreciative crowd noise and energy and even the buzzing of a guitar amp on the opening track until the guy at the sound board gets it sorted out. Put a drink in your hand and some smoke in the air [well, no more—Illinois has gone smoke-free, I’m happy to say] and you’re there. A great mix of songs and tempos and solid musicianship, wall to wall. And yeah, Buddy Guy Live: The Real Deal owes more than a little to rock [as does much of Chicago blues], but there’s still plenty of Mississippi juke joint in Buddy’s guitar.

If you want to catch Buddy live in this kind of setting, your best chance is the dead of winter. This just kills me. He owns Legends—he can play there anytime he chooses. And when he chooses is the entire month of January, probably the least hospitable time to be in Chicago. But book your tickets early—pretty much the entire month sells out quickly, especially the weekend dates.

Of course, when he’s not on the road other times of the year, you may find him sitting at the bar in Legends, taking in whatever local or touring blues act is playing that night. And while he won’t get up and play with other bands playing his club, he’s happy to talk with you if you walk over and say hi.


With friends like these, who needs amplifiers?

December 12, 2007


Delaney & Bonnie and Friends: Motel Shot

We know a number of musicians, and pretty much all of them share the view of bassist Mike Prokopf, that bands are paid to haul equipment and they play for free.

It’s a common complaint among musicians, especially when they’re on the road. You spend so much time hauling equipment, driving hundreds of miles from one gig to the next, hanging out in cheap motel rooms waiting to play or winding down after, and so little time actually making music.

That’s the concept behind this brilliant gem of an album. First released on vinyl in 1971 and rereleased on CD at least four different times [yes, it’s that good], Motel Shot is the kind of music a band plays after the gig, when they’re back at the motel and not ready to sleep or stop playing. All the instruments are acoustic—can’t make too much noise and everything’s packed away anyway. The drummer just beats on an emptied suitcase for the same reasons. An old upright piano has been found somewhere, maybe in the motel lounge. And everyone is playing for the sheer joy of making music.

Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett were a husband and wife duo in the 60s and 70s, labeled a “blue-eyed soul” duo, but playing music that ranged from soul to blues, rock and gospel, with a little jam band thrown in for good measure. They’ve been cited as a great influence on Eric Clapton, George Harrison and others, and though her husband got top billing, Bonnie is one of the most soulful singers you’ll ever hear. The friends on this particular Delaney & Bonnie and Friends outing include Gram Parsons, Leon Russell, Dave Mason and Duane Allman.

The dozen tracks on Motel Shot range from a tent revivalesque, stirring Will the Circle Be Unbroken to an over-the-top Rock of Ages, Robert Johnson’s delta classic Come on in My Kitchen and the improbable hit single from the original album, Never Ending Song of Love.

It also includes a stellar showcase for Bonnie’s talent, Don’t Deceive Me [Please Don’t Go]. The YouTube video below will give you a little taste of the band’s sound and Bonnie’s incredible gift. The song isn’t on Motel Shot, but you’ll still get a sense of the amazing music awaiting you on this album, if you’re lucky enough to find it.

Music to go

November 21, 2007

What music gets you going when you’re driving? Makes you tend to push the speed limit on the open road? Makes you dance in your seat at stoplights? Maybe even makes you, God forbid, sing along? Join the discussion in the comments below.


We always overpack for road trips, especially when it comes to music. And since we were flying to San Francisco before actually hitting the road, that meant cramming stacks of CDs—jazz [of course—including West Coast Jazz icon Stan Getz], classical, opera, rock, blues… And this mix CD.

I used to obsess over mix tapes for parties we’d throw, recording, erasing, rerecording until I got them just right. This CD was much more haphazard than that, thrown together last minute from our iTunes library, a spectacularly eclectic collection of music styles, tastes and sources, including music burned from our equally catholic vinyl collection.

A touch of the obsession remains, though. I bought one tune the night before we left that had to go on the disk. Had to.

So here it is, tune by tune, the first disk we popped into the rental car sound system as we left San Francisco. And it worked. When it started playing through a second time, we just let it.

1. On The Road Again, Canned Heat. This was the tune I had to buy, perhaps the ultimate road anthem by the ’60s California blues/rock band, with its harmonica-driven boogie over a drone borrowed from Eastern music for a perfect mystical touch. Not to be confused with the very different Willie Nelson hit. This YouTube video will give you a taste of their music—and of some of the dreadful psychedelic camera effects of the time.

2. Don’t Dream It’s Over, Crowded House. I don’t even remember how this ’80s tune found its way back into our consciousness this year, but its dreamy quality makes it a perfect track to follow Canned Heat.

3. Gimme Shelter, The Rolling Stones. Probably my favorite Stones song—nice and dark and dangerous, as much of the best rock & roll is.

4. Mystery Girl, Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Sexy punk from this New York band fronted by the alternately tough and girly Karen Oh.

5. Right About Now, The Mooney Suzuki. More New York music from this reliably fun garage punk band—almost as much energy as they deliver live.

6. Rehab, Amy Winehouse. Yeah, I know—I’ll bet she wishes any of her other songs had been her breakout hit. But even if her personal life is a trainwreck, there’s no denying the power of her voice. The song is also a great example of how Brits are keeping 60s-style American soul music alive, long after our own country has turned its back on it.

7. Bang The Drum All Day, Todd Rundgren. The only decent thing Rundgren ever recorded, but it is soooo good. Whenever it comes on, we always crank the volume.

8. I Only Have Eyes For You, The Flamingos. Okay, this is the one unabashedly, uncomplicatedly romantic tune on the whole disk. We love it.

9. When The Levee Breaks, Led Zeppelin. Another gift from the Brits: They gave us back blues music, yet another uniquely American art form we’d walked away from.

10. Bela Lugosi’s Dead, Bauhaus. Call them goth, glam, post-punk or whatever, this dark epic [almost 10 minutes long] would be an impressive debut for any band.

11. Breakdown, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers. One critic called Petty’s debut album “tuneful jangle balanced by a tough garage swagger.” This song is what that sounds like.

12. Let’s Work Together, Canned Heat. When I was buying On The Road Again, I saw this one. I couldn’t resist.

13. Ex-Lion Tamer, Wire. I’m always a sucker for Brit punk, and these guys do it right, fast and loud. This is a track from their 1977 album Pink Flag—it blasts through 22 songs in less than 37 minutes.

14. Ecstasy, Rusted Root. More trippy hippie music, perfect for a California road trip, by way of… Pittsburgh?

15. Chains, The Cookies. Any good mix CD can always be made a little better with some ’60s girl group music.

16. Bye Bye Blackbird, Joe Cocker. Leave it to Mr. Cocker to turn a bouncy 1920s pop tune into a soulful, melancholy love song. Beautiful.

17. Sweet Dreams, Roy Buchanan. A wonderfully haunting solo guitar version of the Patsy Cline standard. We first came across it playing over the closing credits of the Scorsese film The Departed.


Okay, your turn. What are your favorite tunes to go? Music only, please. No talk radio, not even [and perhaps especially not] NPR.

Delta blues from a well schooled practitioner

August 15, 2007

Leroy Jodie Pierson: Country Blues
Gravel Road Music, 2007


On our way out of town to go camping last week, we stopped by our post office box downtown to pick up the mail. Perfect timing. Our friend Don in St. Louis had mailed us Leroy Pierson’s excellent new CD, Country Blues. By the time we got onto I-94 on our way to Michigan, the pure, clean notes of his National steel slide guitar filled the car. Well, that and people and pillows and reading material and maps and binoculars and… We could tell we were in for a great road trip.

I wrote about Leroy a while back when we’d seen him live in St. Louis. Scroll down a bit here and you’ll find a little more about him and his music.

Leroy comes by his considerable blues skills honestly. He’s studied and played with the likes of Mississippi Fred McDowell, Johnny Shines, Son House, Brownie McGhee and St. Louis blues legend Henry Townsend. And it shows—in his flawless guitar and his soulful vocals.

Country Blues is just what the name says. Music from the cotton fields, sharecropper farms and roadside juke joints of the Mississippi Delta. Whether acoustic or electrified, this is music that hasn’t made it up to Chicago and been citified into urban blues. And Leroy strips it down to its essence here. On six of the twelve tracks, it’s just him and his guitar, either a vintage Style-O National steel guitar or his National Resolectric. On the other six, he’s joined by guitarist Ken MacSwan. Ken’s subtle, understated playing blends beautifully with Leroy’s guitar work. Close your eyes and you could be on the front porch of some shotgun shack along a stretch of Highway 61.

Perhaps the most haunting track on this deceptively simple, stellar disk is Mance Lipscomb’s God Moved on the Water, the story of the Titanic told so plainly, so heartbreakingly: “The fourteenth day of April, the year was 1912, when the Titanic struck the iceberg. It’s almost too sad to tell.”

Many promising bluesmen have ventured off into more lucrative but less interesting genres. Keb’ Mo’ comes to mind—his occasional blues tunes are breathtakingly beautiful, but his albums are increasingly filled with forgettable singer songwriter dross. Not Leroy. He faithfully carries the blues torch—and it burns brightly here on Country Blues.

Listen to some samples through his website. Then buy it. Better yet, catch him live in St. Louis at BB’s Jazz, Blues and Soups and buy it from the man himself.

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Loud and Low-fi—in other words, perfect

July 25, 2007

Jack O’ Fire: The Destruction of Squaresville
Estrus records, 1994


I know I’ve ranted in the past about the musical wasteland that is Chicago radio. There are a few bright spots, though, mostly clustered down at the left end of the dial. Low-wattage college stations whose limited coverage you start to drive out of once you hit downtown. WLUW at Loyola University, WNUR at Northwestern University and WDCB at the College of DuPage are all presets in the car and are the buttons I most frequently punch. Even these aren’t consistently reliable, but when they are, they point up what good radio brings to the party. They introduce you to music you might not otherwise find on your own.

The Destruction of Squaresville is an excellent case in point. I heard the opening track of this album—an amazing, low-fi, heavily distorted and totally soulful rendition of Howlin’ Wolf’s blues number Asked For Water—on WNUR [I think] and was immediately hooked. I called the station: “What did you just play? Who did it? Where can I find it?” After first striking out at Reckless Records here in Chicago [”Buy local!”], I looked on Amazon. There was exactly one copy available, through a third party. I snapped it up.

The fifteen tracks are all covers. And they cover the waterfront, from Willie Dixon, Little Walter and Hound Dog Taylor to Chuck Berry, The Sonics and Joy Division. This seemingly disparate mix is held together by a harmonica-driven garage/blues/punk sound that seems filtered through speakers that have been kicked down a flight of stairs or two in their time. The album flows seamlessly between genres with a unifying raw, dangerous quality.

And Jack O’ Fire’s musicianship is dead on, never descending into sloppiness no matter how elemental and distorted it gets. Tim Kerr’s blues slide guitar work on Hate to See Ya Go and 7th Son is particularly fine. More than anything, though, it is Walter Daniels’ insistent, boozy vocals and powerful harmonica playing that shape the album’s sound.

And that sound is this: A really great night in a dark, rough trade juke joint, slightly out of control, slightly scary. But the band is smoking, and this will be one of the best nights ever, as long as no fights break out.

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Leroy Pierson—Delta blues, well done

June 27, 2007


Some people think of St. Louis as a southern city. I think of it more as a city at the top edge of the South, shaped and informed by it, but not of it. Even more so, it is shaped by the Mississippi River that flows along its eastern edge. Up that river has come some of the finest food the South in general and New Orleans in particular have to offer.

St. Louis is also the northernmost city where one can routinely hear zydeco music, both from traveling acts and local bands, again thanks to the river. Jazz came up that river too. And while it’s not as pervasive there as it once was, St. Louis had a hand in shaping this most American art form. Scott Joplin. Clark Terry. Miles Davis. Oliver Lake. They all called St. Louis home at one time or another.

And then there’s Delta blues. Born in the cotton fields of Mississippi, it too traveled up the river and found a welcome home in St. Louis. Even when it’s electrified, it hangs on to its country roots and takes you back down to the Delta. And when it comes to modern masters of Delta blues, you’d be hard pressed to find a better example than St. Louis’ own Leroy Jodie Pierson.

Leroy didn’t pick up his chops from no books or DVDs. He and fellow student Bonnie Raitt [yes, she was an amazing, fiery blueswoman before she finally started to make real money with pop songs like “Something To Talk About”] studied and traveled with Delta blues legend Mississippi Fred McDowell. In fact, the first time Leroy played in public was at a blues festival in Wisconsin or maybe Iowa. He had taken Fred there to play and was standing in the wings during Fred’s set. Suddenly, Fred walked over to Leroy, pulled him out onto the stage and handed him his guitar.

For years, when Leroy played the Broadway Oyster Bar in St. Louis every Saturday night [and Marion and I were there for more Saturdays than we can count], at some point in the evening, he would strap on a big red hollow-bodied electric guitar that Fred had willed him.

national_style_o_ad.jpgThese days, he mostly plays a couple of National guitars—the Style O or the ResoLectric. And where he plays them every Thursday and Friday night is BB’s Jazz, Blues and Soups. Whenever we make a trip to St. Louis, we try to get there for his Friday night performance, 7:00 to 9:30. If we lived in St. Louis, we’d be there every Friday night. Yes, he’s that good.

As BB’s name implies, they also do food there. In addition to burgers and other standard bar fare, they serve up rice and beans, gumbo and other cajun delights almost as authentic as the Delta blues Leroy serves up.

leroy_album.jpgLeroy hasn’t done nearly enough recording. Rusty Nail, his most recent release, came out in the 90s. Its ten tracks are a wonderful, seamless blend of traditional tunes, songs by Fred McDowell and others and a few tracks by Leroy. Last time I checked, there were six copies available on Amazon. He has a new CD ready to go, though. Should be out later this summer. When it comes out, I’ll let you know.

In the meantime, if you’re lucky enough to find yourself in St. Louis on a Thursday or Friday night, fill up on some gumbo and amazing music at BB’s. You can thank me later.

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This very white boy plays the blue very well

May 23, 2007

Johnny Winter: Johnny Winter


Okay, let’s start by saying yes, at least some white boys can indeed play the blues. Play the hell out of them, in fact. Some, of course, cannot and should stop right now. I mean it.

But few white boys can play them as well as Johnny Winter can. And ironically, few are as white as this albino blues powerhouse. Starting out as a rock guitarist, Winter let the blues world know in no uncertain terms that he had arrived with this self-titled album in 1969. Unlike many white boys, he neither softened the real blues sound nor rockified the music to appeal to a broader audience.

To get that sound, he not only played it, he backed himself up with the real deal: blues legend Willie Dixon on piano, harmonica ace Walter Horton. Even more telling when it comes to him nailing the sound is that he’s played on recordings by Muddy Waters and other blues giants. Just listen to his guitar and you’ll see why. Whether he’s playing a driving electric solo or acoustic slide, the music is pure and true.

I need to take a moment and provide a little caveat here: You’re either a fan of Winter’s high growl of a voice or you’re not. I am. And he shows some surprising range with it. Ray Charles had perhaps one of the most soulful voices on the planet, but his rendition of I’ll Drown in my Own Tears falls far short of where Winter takes it on this disk.

I’ve listened to other albums by Winter over the years. This one remains my favorite. If you like the blues, this white boy’s music belongs in your collection.

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