First, about that name . . . in the sixties, Leonard Chess tried marketing Muddy and Wolf to the college folk circuit by promoting a pair of discs under just this name; the content, of course, was pure Chicago blues, electric and raw. Such is the case, too, with Rockin' Johnny's "More Real Folk Blues," his third outing as leader.
I got my copy during Johnny's recent swing through Ontario, the first time I'd had the pleasure to see him live, and can happily say this disc is an accurate reflection of the passion and intensity he brings to the stage.
If I were to make comparisons (the reviewer's lazy way out), I'd call him a cross between Johnny B. Moore and Steve Freund, both solid Chicago players known for no-nonsense, tasteful support and intelligent, 'old-school' leads. As befits his comparative youth, though, Johnny brings a bit more energy to the table. Having made a name for himself as a sideman and later as leader in the tough clubs of Chicago's west side, he's already played - and held his own, thank you - with some of the best. But he approaches it all with such passion, such enthusiasm it's as though it's up there with food and shelter, as necessary to life itself as breathing.
Recorded during a two-night stand at B.L.U.E.S. On Halstead, this is as good a document of a real working Chicago band as you're going to get. Joining Johnny are guests Eddie Shaw (sax), guitarist Billy Flynn, and Mark Cihlar (harmonica). Johnny's own band, bassist Sho Kimaya, Kenny Smith on drums, and rhythm guitarist Rick Kreher, have evolved into one of the tightest units around, slipping effortlessly into relentless grooves time and again.
The playlist is imaginative while staying within tradition, and there's a pleasantly high percentage of relatively obscurities. The biggest surprise is the inclusion of Bobby Gentry's "Ode To Billy Joe." Not something you'd ordinarily find on many blues discs; Johnny's take is high-energy rock 'n' roll . . . it's cooler than you'd think.
Johnny's guitar work is well-nigh impeccable. He's fluid, he's tasteful, and he's unfailingly imaginative. He explores the T-Bone encyclopedia on "After Hours," he picks like Chet Atkins on speed through Earl Hooker's "Guitar Rag," and he utterly defines the traditional West-side sound with his Buddy Guy-style work on "Stop Hurting Me." But Johnny's restless imagination has him tossing off quick little quotes, minor musical surprises, here there and everywhere. As a result there's no doubt it's Johnny you're listening to; he's his own man with his own sound.
Johnny's never been a particularly strong vocalist, but he sounds both more relaxed and confident here. Perhaps it's a 'home turf' thing; at any rate, he still won't win any awards but he's thoroughly convincing.
In short, this is the real thing. There may well be louder, smoother, or faster product out there vying for your musical dollar . . . but it simply doesn't get much better. Approaching essential!
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