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What About Chicago?

| June 30, 2006

The Blues Foundation held its annual Blues Music Awards (formerly the W.C. Handy Awards) on May 11th in Memphis. Congrats to Chicago awardees Buddy Guy (B.B. King Entertainer Of The Year), Mavis Staples (Soul Blues Female Artist Of The Year), Eddie Shaw (Instrumentalist – Horn), and Willie “Big Eyes” Smith (Instrumentalist – Drums). Hubert Sumlin, who underwent lung removal surgery in 2004, won awards for Traditional Album Of The Year for About Them Shoes (Tone Cool) and Instrumentalist – Guitar. Although he moved from the Windy City, Sumlin remains the quintessential Chicago bluesman due to his association with Howlin’ Wolf. Little Milton won posthumous awards in four categories including Album Of The Year for Think Of Me (Telarc) and Song Of The Year for that record’s title track.

The Blues Music Awards include 25 categories, divided into “Traditional” and “Contemporary.” Each category has five to seven nominees, but Chicago was underrepresented throughout, and you have to ask why. Despite persistent rumors Chicago blues is dead, there are many talented musicians playing nightly, keeping the music alive and the nightclubs in business. There are incendiary guitarists like Chico Banks, Pistol Pete, and Melvin Taylor; there is guitarist/singer-songwriter #Jimmy Burns, who mixes it up with traditional blues, soul, and R&B. There is harmonica wizard Matthew Skoller who blows harp in the tradition of Junior Wells and James Cotton and writes topical songs like “Wired World” and “Love Her, Don’t Shove Her”; there is Nellie “Tiger” Travis, Joe Barr, Osee Anderson, and a wealth of underrated talent.

The local recording industry may have something to do with it. The two major independents, Alligator and Blind Pig, are looking elsewhere for groups. The musicians play a role, too. There are only a handful of actual bands left, and many of those playing clubs are made up of musicians who find it more lucrative to freelance. It thus becomes more difficult to keep a band together and get the attention of record companies, who will only record acts that tour.

Ironically, one of the most insidious factors for lack of industry recognition in Chicago has to do with the resurgence of the blues in the ’80s and ’90s. Featured in commercials and touted by the Blues Brothers, it became a commodity, a recognizable brand. That was fine so long as there were artists who played according to the formula. It became a problem however, when a new generation of musicians emerged, with a more contemporary sound. Forced to adhere to the formula, the current crop of blues musicians are often denied the creativity of their peers outside Chicago.

NEW RELEASES: Speaking of Chicago, Alligator Records celebrates 35 years of blood, sweat, and tears, with a two-disc set entitled 35 x 35: 35 Songs, 35 Years Of Genuine Houserockin’ Music. Alligator has recorded more than 2,800 songs in its 35-year history, so choosing the tracks for this compilation must have been a painstaking project. Tunes were culled from artists’ debuts, excluding thematic compilations like the Living Chicago Blues series or all star-summit meetings like Showdown! or Harp Attack! From the opener, Hound Dog Taylor‘s “She’s Gone,” to the closer, Mavis Staples’ “A Crying Man’s Plea,” Alligator keeps it fresh by choosing songs that are not hit-driven or over-recorded, thus keeping it fresh during the two CDs.

Changing direction in its 35th year, Alligator’s new releases prior to 35 x 35 are Racin’ The Devil, by ex-Stray Cats bassist Lee Rocker, and Give It Time, by singer-songwriter Eric Lindell. Racin’ The Devil is high-energy rockabilly at its best. It is more than just another band of pompadours rehashing a musical style, although its presence on Alligator is rather curious, given the label’s history and the aforementioned talent that is available in Chicago. The same can be said of *Give It Time, which is a laid back, New Orleans-flavored collection of original material, closer to folk rock than blues.

Right Place, Right Time: Live At Tipitina’s – Mardi Gras ’89 (Hyena) and Mercenary: The Songs Of Johnny Mercer (Blue Note/EMI) are two new Dr. John releases that present the New Orleans Day Tripper at different periods in his career. Right Place, Right Time is part two of a two-volume set: The Rebennack Chronicles. Volume 1, All By Hisself: Live At The Lonestar was released in 2004. On Mercenary Dr. John follows the trend of singers like Queen Latifah and Etta James, who pay tribute to legends of American popular music. The title is both a play on words and a comment on surviving in the music business. Dr. John pays tribute to Mercer in his one original song on the CD, “I Ain’t No Johnny Mercer,” a bluesy song with the refrain “For better or worser, ain’t no Johnny Mercer.” In the liner notes Dr. John marvels that Mercer’s influence resulted in his rhyming the word “sexy” with “apoplexy” in his songs. Throughout, Dr. John remains true to his NOLA roots, with his distinctive voice, and up-from-the-swamp musical style.

GOING TO CALIFORNIA: Chicago native Jon McDonald and his wife Claire Leonard-McDonald are leaving Chicago at the end of the month to set up house in Palm Springs. Singer/guitarist McDonald has been a ubiquitous presence in the Chicago scene for the past 30 years. He will continue his current gig as rhythm guitarist with Magic Slim And The Teardrops; we hope he comes back to Chicago often.

– Beverly Zeldin-Palmer

Category: Monthly, Sweet Home

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  1. James Kerry says:

    Hi there!
    My band just made our first proper song!!!

    Please have a look, we’ve learned a lot from your reviews :)