Theatre

Roomful of Blues is celebrating fifty years this year. That’s a long time playing together. Not all the members go back that far, but the history of the band does.

Opening for Roomful of Blues at City Winery Chicago was Corey Dennison and his band. I think fans of Freddie King would dig this cat. I don’t see Dennison as a King imitator, but I did see some similarities in his appearance and the guitar he played. Dennison has a four-piece band - two guitars, bass and drums. The band pulls off some fun choreographed stage moves and display a ton of energy. Corey even did the Buddy Guy trick of walking through the crowd while playing. The difference being that Dennison started singing without a microphone in the middle of the club. Still, you could hear his strong voice without a problem. Sometimes Blues singing is almost like a holler, just shouting more or less. You can really feel it.

Dennison proved to be a decent Chicago Blues guitar player. He plays without a pick like a lot of the older players, using a lot of thumb. It seems primitive but it’s a great sound.

Roomful of Blues is a bigger band - three horns, keys, guitar, bass, drums and vocals and the crowd was responsive. Together, they present a powerful sound. The horns give more melodic information to chew on. Everything about the band was musically excellent. Well-seasoned players are such a treat to watch. The energy of the band was good but did not match Dennison and crew.

I have heard a lot of Blues music in Chicago. Having said that, I am dying to hear something new. I know a lot is tradition. The twelve-bar form does have limitations. I don’t really hear songs anymore. It’s all the same song. You can speed it up, slow it down…change keys…it’s still the same song. The Blues bands of yesterday had more going on. The missing ingredient is the dancing.

Once upon a time, bands were there so people could dance. Even Classical Music was based on the dances of the day. Dancing has been replaced by sitting. Blues bands of yesteryear would never have held a gig doing whole sets of twelve bar. Tough to dance to a shuffle beat.

Roomful of Blues started towards the end of the sixties Blues movement. Then it stopped moving. The Psychedlic era killed it and I don’t see it being much more than a novelty now. Stevie Ray Vaughan brought it back thirty years ago and that was really Rock disguised as Blues. In no way am I saying that I am down on The Blues. It is still a valid form of music but it needs to grow. This genre of music spawned Rock and Jazz and a lot of other styles. And I think there is more that can come from it in the future. But that will not come from repeating the past.

Published in In Concert
Thursday, 10 August 2017 22:14

Delbert McClinton - One of the Fortunate Few

 

I have been waiting to see Delbert McClinton for a while. It just never happened for me…timing, etc. Finally, it happened. I even took my Mom who is as big a fan as I am.

Warming up for Delbert was Amy Black, a singer/songwriter from Nashville. Black sang only accompanied by piano, which blended perfectly with her very strong voice that comes with powerful with awesome intonation. However, I didn’t feel that strongly for her songs. They were well written but just not overly catchy. In fact, I walked away with no memory of them at all, but only that of an amazing voice. I would like to see her with her full band instead of the simple piano/voice arrangements. Maybe that’s what was missing.

Then, after a brief intermission following Black’s set… Delbert McClinton walks onto the stage. I can’t even comprehend how many times he has done this. “Take Me to the River” was the opener. Del’s version is way more swampy feeling than Talking Heads - not even the same song. Del’s hand-picked musicians formed a tremendous band. No name brand guys. No one under fifty or sixty-years-old. I don’t even remember a band introduction. It was all about the music.

What about the music, you ask? McClinton’s music is self described as Blues but there is much more to it than that. It more like the intersection of Blues Road, Country Avenue and Old Rock and Roll Boulevard. If you think of music like cooking I guess it all kinda comes from the same kitchen, but his unique formula really makes the flavors that stand out. You have the basic recipe but when you start adding spices and such…things get extra tasty.

In a way, I feel here is a guy that should be headlining stadiums. But when I see him work a club, my thoughts change. An intimate venue like such is the perfect environment for Delbert. He is basically a breathtaking club act with great songs. Sometimes we put too much emphasis on the bands playing the hockey stadiums and forget the guys in the clubs exist. The lesson here - go see more musicians like this where you can see the expressions on their face and the watch each note played with finesse and passion rather than viewing a giant monitor.

Let’s get back to the songs. “When Rita Leaves” was played early in the set and another crowd favorite “Ain’t I Got a Right to be Wrong?” was included in the first five, six songs. He has SO many great songs. Two of Delbert’s songs that always stood out were songs at least partially penned by a guy named Jerry Lyn Williams – the same guy that wrote a chunk of Clapton’s later hits. “Giving It Up for Your Love” is a classic that was on the set list. The other is a beautiful song called “Sending Me Angels”.

Music like McClinton’s is good for your cardio-vascular system. It even gets the older people dancing…did I mention that? Well, I just turned fifty and took my seventy-one-year-old mother…and there were people older than her dancing. Some of you youngsters should get out and watch a band like this. You might not be able to keep up…unless somebody breaks a hip.

 

Published in In Concert
Friday, 07 July 2017 18:13

Buddy Guy is Real

Buddy Guy is real. In a music business where people often portray an image onstage - a persona - Buddy Guy is real. When you go see him play, that’s what you get and nobody walks away not knowing a little something about the man.

Before Guy’s set at Ravinia Festival, we were treated to the music of Booker T. Jones. Some of you might say, “who’s he?” Booker T. and The MG’s were the house band at Stax Records. They were on many songs that you remember, but they were not the faces on the record. Most people do recognize their hit “Green Onions”, but if you asked who it was…

His was a nice short, but effective, set. I had hopes of Buddy coming out and playing a song with Jones but that might have actually taken the focus away from Booker’s music in a way. It was really nice to hear the Hammond Organ being played by the actual person you heard play those melodies. Booker even played guitar and sang…but…that organ, that sound… It’s almost become a lost instrument today. I say almost because you do still see them but we could be witnessing the tail end of the instrument’s impact. I’d love to see bands today bring back the organ.

On the other hand, Buddy Guy was born to play the guitar - to quote his own song. I think that is true. However, he does not play the way your guitar teacher will tell you to play. What does that mean? It means he just plays the guitar. He doesn’t study it. He doesn’t analyze it. He plays the guitar. Guy’s playing has been a huge influence on Rock’s elite but many just don’t get it unless they see the man play live. You cannot capture Buddy Guy on a recording. It’s just not the same. His performances should not be repeated. They should not be recorded. They should be experienced. You need to be there when he walks out into the crowd, and this could not have been truer than at Ravinia the other night.

I don’t want to go off on a tangent here, but go see more live music. Before music turns into a complete corporate clown show, go see more live music. Live music has so many benefits. Musicians pay their bills nowadays largely in part by playing live. Free downloads killed CD sales. We need to support these artists. Maybe the decay of integrity can be slowed down or even repaired if we did this. Go see more live music.

Artists too are to blame. They need to be real. That’s why the music of some people lasts forever. Formulas are for scientists, not musicians. Just be yourself and make some music. Be like Buddy Guy. I do not mean imitation. Just be real.

Guy’s set was amazing. You will never see the same show twice. He starts one song and may finish it or he may jump to anther song. The band needs to be on their toes. I am sure they rehearse most of that but I am sure a huge part of rehearsal is learning how to follow Buddy’s lead. The Blues as a musical form has always involved a lot of improvisation. You actually get to hear music at its point of creation. You can’t rehearse that part of the process, the creation. To witness this is a gift to you from the artist. This leads me back to the reasons to go see live music. It’s like gift exchange. They give you the music. You go see them so they can pay their bills. It’s good for the economy. Go see more live music.

Published in In Concert
Saturday, 10 June 2017 21:14

Robben Ford at SPACE

“If you would shut off your phones, you might enjoy it more……”

This is the day of the cell phone, and in being so, there really needs to be some type of etiquette applied from time to time. I have also been guilty of this myself. When you are watching someone perform ANYTHING, turn off your phone. And the guy on stage shouldn’t have to tell you that either. That happened. I messaged my friend mid set, too.

Okay, but what about Ford's recent show at SPACE in Evanston? Robben Ford is one monster guitar player and hasn’t lost a step. He has played with people ranging from Miles Davis to Kiss. His solo work is very Blues based. Before you even hear a solo, you’ll notice that Ford is also a solid rhythm player. His singing falls right in there, too. Robben is a very precise musician in terms of rhythm. It’s easy to see how he got a lot of the work he has through the years.

Guitar players tend to get judged on their soloing abilities. No problem there. Ford was stepping out on an early 50’s Gibson Les Paul Gold Top. He had his classic Dumble amplifier and tone for days. I know, it’s not the guitar. I know, it’s not the amp. It’s that solid phrasing and the respect for what he is playing. The effects he used were completely unnecessary. He could have easily plugged straight in.

Bassist Brian Allen did his fair share of soloing throughout the set. I would also say he didn’t overplay. Bass players who overplay lose their role from time to time. I didn’t hear that.

Wes Little finished off the trio on drums. Little is a powerhouse type of drummer. A heavy hitter, he also gets a great jazz vibe when needed. He stepped forward for a couple solos, one longer than the others that really showed his chops. I think it takes some seasoning to play like that, to be able to hit hard and yet just right. Even the loudest crashes were musical. Ford even sat behind his amp while Wes took his solo. He may have been in a safe place there.

With an amazing song repertoire that includes “Worried Life Blues”, “High Heels and Throwing Things”, “Can’t Let Her Go”, “When I Leave Here” and so many more, it was surreal at times watching this legend play in such an intimate setting. Ford included a songs from his latest release Into the Sun, which I recommend picking up.

Other than Robben Ford having to tell the people watching to shut off their phones, it was a great show. His calling out cell phone abusers was actually kind of funny, anyway. On second thought, using your phone during a performance might be more sad than anything. When you are watching a musician playing at the top of their game…right in front of you - Pay Attention!

 

Published in In Concert

Expectations for what you might see in a concert are not always what turn out to be the reality of the situation. On my way to Ravinia Festival in Highland Park, I knew I was going to see two legendary guitar players in their respective fields. Let’s just say any preconceived notions I may have had regarding a strong showing by Buddy Guy and Jeff Beck were dismissed several times throughout this fine Sunday evening.

 

First, I assumed Buddy Guy would be opening for Jeff Beck. However, Beck took the stage first, opening with a track from his latest release Loud Hail. The song starts, vocals are heard, but no one on stage is singing. Then a woman dressed in what could be described as some kind of military uniform singing through a megaphone appears as she strolls down the aisle. She eventually gets on stage and joins the band. Now, this really wasn’t that strange for a Jeff Beck show. He has been dabbling in different genres most of his career.

 

Beck alternated between new album cuts and some of his classics like Freeway Jam. Somewhere around the fifth or sixth song a different vocalist appears and to the crowd’s approval, it was veteran Jimmy Hall who has worked with Jeff many times. Their performance of “Morning Dew” was highly inspiring and raised some goose bumps on Beck’s avid fans in attendance. “Morning Dew” was written during the turbulent 1960’s with a post apocalyptic theme. There seemed to be a bit of a theme during the show. I have always considered Jeff Beck to be a man of peace, and he conveyed this subtle message in his selections.

 

As for Beck’s guitar playing? Well, a musician in his league never disappoints in that department. Some people have claimed JB to be the best guitar player out there. Even though that I find that an impossible title to hold, he is certainly high on the list. Now here is a guy known for flashy guitar playing yet he doesn’t waste a note. We have had so many technically gifted guitar players come and go through the years, so what makes a guy like him so appealing? One word, melody. If someone claimed Jeff was the most melodic guitar player, I just might have to agree. Some say brilliant instrumentalists are often frustrated singers and when Beck plays, it is akin to a human voice. He doesn’t even use a pick anymore. This man’s music is what happens when you give someone an amazing ear uniquely interpreting each melody on a Stratocaster. Beck’s encore was his take on The Beatles’ “A Day In The Life” to which he played the vocal lines on the guitar just like a singer. His voice is the guitar.

 

After Beck’s stirring set, I was sitting there thinking, “How is Buddy Guy gonna top that?” Buddy is Buddy, that’s what he is. He has been quoted as saying that’s all he can do is be himself. That’s just fine in my book. A true artist’s personality comes out in their art, no matter what the area. Guy is often manic but just so down to earth that you end up falling in love with the man before the show is over. He celebrated his 80th birthday just the day before. That’s correct, 80 years old! But Guy didn’t show his age and displayed the energy of a much younger man.

 

Guy’s attitude on stage is incredible. I have never met Buddy myself but have heard that off the stage he is a pretty shy guy. He’s just one of those artists whose true self only comes out when performing. Look out and be prepared as Guy’s shows are basically unscripted for the most part. He admitted he had no set list though his band was obviously prepared for what he was doing. His performance is almost like Buddy thinking out loud. He jumps from one thing to another.   

   

I consider Buddy to be one of the last real showmen of the Blues. His roots go back to Muddy Waters. Those old Blues cats always know how to entertain. Buddy used to do a trick back in the old club days where he would use a super long guitar cord and go out into the audience while playing. Now a wireless system makes things so much easier. Guy walked off the stage and kept going though a good portion of the pavilion at Ravinia, twice passing my way.

 

Guy was joined by Beck on one song and another featured two of his kids, one on vocals the other on guitar. The last portion of his show was Buddy teasing the audience playing just bits of a bunch of old Blues songs that weighed heavily as his musical influences. A true entertainer leaves the audience satisfied but wanting more. This was definitely the case.

 

Did Buddy Guy top Jeff Beck? Well, maybe not by his guitar playing alone. The performance actually made you forget the opening act while he was on stage. Like the title of his opening number, Buddy was “Born to Play the Guitar”. Jeff Beck was too, but Buddy was also born to entertain. At 80-years-old, won’t be performing forever, my advice being to see him while you still can. He is really one of the only living links to the old Blues cats left. After him, it’s mostly the English Blues players like Clapton. And who is Eric Clapton’s favorite guitar player? Buddy Guy. On July 31, 2016, Buddy Guy was mine was too.

Published in In Concert

Five time Grammy Award winner Robert Cray brought his band into Glen Ellyn, IL to play some Blues. Roberts’s career spans forty years. The Robert Cray Band made its debut in 1980 and some of his members has lasted almost since the band began. Richard Cousins on bass has been with him as long as I can remember. Dover Weinberg is on Hammond Organ and keys and Les Falconer completes the line up on drums.

 

Cray is just as amazing at the age of 62 as he ever was. Such a sweet, yet powerful voice. His guitar playing is nothing short of spectacular. No gimmicks from this Master of the Stratocaster. Cray goes straight into the amp (with a wireless system) and plays The Blues the way they are meant to be played. However, he is a bit more sophisticated than his predecessors.

 

He opened up strong and finished strong, leaving you wanting more. Part of this may be that it was a very short set. An hour and fifteen minutes was great but I would have liked a little more. That seemed to be the general consensus from the crowd, although they were more than satisfied with the performance. 

 

Cray’s band was so tight and in the pocket. The kind of groove this band lays down only comes from experience…no other way. You couldn’t help clapping or tapping your foot the whole time. Cray really has his own voice musically to the point it is not very easy to compare him directly with other Blues artists. A few people yelled out “Muddy Waters” and “Howlin’ Wolf” which I didn’t really understand but Robert took it just fine. Great to have a sense of humor about things like that. The man is constantly smiling. He really seemed relaxed and at peace, not an artist chasing demons. 

 

The Robert Cray Band proves you can play the Blues and keep it sounding fresh. They groove without playing a bunch of twelve bar shuffles with one sounding like another. Cray was relaxed, the band was relaxed and the audience was relaxed. I don’t mean that in a bad way. He had the attention of everyone in the room. Once again, my only real complaint would be the length of the show. He was the epitome of leaving you wanting more. Satisfied, yet still hungry. The show was over in ten minutes. At least that’s how it felt to me. My hands hurt from clapping along. There should have been a dance floor.

 

Robert Cray Band

Belushi Performance Hall

McAninch Arts Center

College Of DuPage

 

Published in In Concert

 

 

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