Thursday March 22nd, I left the 9-to-5 behind for a weekend in the blues mecca of Chicago, Illinois with Shirley and Walter Smith. Big Walter, the Groove Merchants and their High Steppin' Horn Section were hitting the road for a private party at the House of Blues on the 23rd and I was asked to ride along.
Six of us snuggled into the Smith's 1999 blue and silver Ford van, and for the whole 8 hour ride, Paul and Paulette Wigens, Theresa Smith, me and Shirley laughed and talked while Walter drove. We stopped in Black River Falls for dinner, then boogied into Chicago listening to music and teasing Paul Wigens about his shoe collection. He has so many shoes, his wife Pauly says, either they need to take a walk or she will. In between the foot fetish jokes, we listened to a debut release by Sweet Poppa Dave and the Private Reserve out of St. Cloud, Minnesota. Nice CD. The Reserve's band dynamic is more intuitive on originals, but they're pretty competent playing the standards. It's clear though that they're having way more
fun on material that's more familiar to them.
We also checked out a demo release by Noell, a young lady I'd heard before at the Whisky Junction in Minneapolis during a blues jam. Her CD proved what I always thought, and that is that she has a beautiful, flowing voice that moves
effortlessly. She is as comfortable singing blues-rock as she is with show tunes, which can be both an advantage and a disadvantage. Her range is varied, but sometimes, that kind of versatility can prevent a singer from developing their
own style. It can make an artist opt for breadth instead of depth. The material presented here doesn't challenge her voice enough. Still, regardless of the limitations of this demo disc, it's obvious that Noell is a talented singer.
We pulled into Chicago in time to catch the Grana' Louise Blues Band at Buddy Guy's. She was just starting the last set as we walked in the door, and judging by all the men standing at the edge of the stage, I'd say she had the house rockin'. The
fans were attracted by either her risqué song choices or by the short black skirt she was wearing. At any rate, she was in fine stage presence. Due in part to the fact that she was killin 'em at Buddy Guy's and perhaps also because she was included on that playbill for the Friday event at the House of Blues. Also appearing at the mini blues fest was harmonica expert Billy Branch and his Sons of the Blues.
Sound checks were scheduled for 3pm Friday afternoon, and while we were setting up on the main floor, the band Duran Duran was upstairs going through their sound check. Our space was smaller, but I think our acoustics were better, a tribute to
the wooden decor and the intimate layout . However, the highlight of the room had to be the series of images etched into the ceiling.
Embossed on panels made of some alabaster-type material, these raised reliefs pay tribute to the greats in blues. Like Mount Rushmore, Muddy Waters, Memphis Minnie, Lightnin Hopkins and Ma Rainey look down from the white plaster gallery. I walked around with my neck bent backwards, bumping into people, trying to see if my favorites were overhead. I found Otis Spann, Alberta Hunter, and Aretha Franklin. There were reproductions of Willie, Walter and Wolf, as
well as Elmore James, Etta James and James Cotton. They were all there...the best, the brightest, the innovators, the authenticators. I kept looking until the wait-staff asked me to get out of the way so they could set up for the night's event.
The invitation-only party opened with a driving soul blues set by a debonair Billy Branch, and his Sons of the Blues, a group of high caliber, experienced Chicago sidemen. They played covers and original material that had folks on the dance floor with the first note. I'd never heard Branch live before. His style seems to be a cross between Billy Boy Arnold and contemporary street blues. With his bass player handling the lion's share of the vocal duties, Branch's mix of uptempo
arrangements and satisfying harp-monics vibrated the room. Groups of people partied everywhere, while servers worked the crowd carrying fresh hors d'oeuvres on platters. Like a royal blue appetizer, the good energy created by the Sons of
the Blues set the stage for the rest of the night.
Not to be out-done, the next act, featuring the sassy Grana' Louise, took charge of the stage. Her opening tune " I Want a Big Fat Daddy " caused a whole lot of whoopin and hollerin from the dance floor. The ladies went crazy, boppin and bouncing all over the place. Grana' tells me "Fat Daddy" will definitely make it to her next CD. She surrounded herself with Grade A help, guitarist Luke Strong and drummer Rick King, on loan from Koko Taylor's band. King played one handed the whole set due to a broken left arm. Veteran Chicago bass man Ricky Nelson and John Chorney on piano rounded out the sound.
Things then moved to a different groove after Big Walter Smith hit the stage. The Groove Merchants were all dolled up for the evening in black tuxedo gear, with Walter suavely dapper in dress black from head to toe, including a full brim felt hat
and some kinda wonderful smellin cologne. I sat with him through the Branch and Grana' Louise shows and watched as musicians, fans and other music professionals came by our table to speak with Walter.
I was introduced to blues man Casey Jones, music agent Marty Saltzman and Eddie Shaw's bass player Lafayette "Shorty" Gilbert with his wife, Pat. People came and went, stopping by the table to smile, shake Walter's hand then move off into the crowd. By the time the Groove Merchants hit the stage, the good mood had solidified. Food plates could be seen scattered all over the House of Blues and the open bar was steady rollin. I watched the show while talking with Billy Branch and Casey Jones.
The Groove Merchants showcased a couple tunes from their coming CD and the new material really caught my ear. Walter's choice of Howlin Wolf's "Killing Floor" is a natural compliment for his voice. And the Groovers really swing on "I Want To Know", playing it with a calypso touch that had folks rocking and rubbing elbows the rest of the night. Ted "T-Bone" Thomas readily engaged the crowd with his trombone trickery. He often takes the role generally associated with the harmonica or saxophone. He's the one who dances out into the crowd, climbs up on speakers, or travels the length of the bar.
We partied till 3 in the morning, or at least that's what my roomie Theresa Smith tells me. I was having too good a time to pay attention to the clock. Special acknowledgment goes to Gregg Harder who was the sound engineer for the night. Harder
regularly does sound for the 8 piece Groove Merchant band. I saw him earlier that day at the sound check and asked about the difficulty of running audio for 2 additional bands. His reply: "Piece of cake". And, I'd say the sound, and the party, was every bit a piece of cake, just like the kind Mama used to bake. The night was hot, sweet, made from scratch with a jelly, jelly
When I finally woke up Saturday morning, Shirley took me to see what remained of Maxwell Street, that district in Chicago known as the birthplace of electrified blues. At one time this area was home to the largest and longest lived urban, open air market in America. But now its bleak, dilapidated appearance is matched only by the hopeless outlook seen in the eyes of its burned out, rudderless community. Stores long gone, all that's left now are boarded up buildings, ram-shackled leaning masses of splintery, broken wood, faded signs and exploited dreams. What this area was compared to what it is now can only be a testament to a non-caring, narrow-minded, government sponsored zealotry designed to lay siege to
Chicago's black community. Ok, off my soap box and back to the music.
Saturday night, about 14 of us crowded into Blue Chicago to hear Eddy Clearwater. We also went across the street to check out the Michael Coleman Band at Famous Dave's. Neither band could hold our collective attention, so we piled into
the "Bluzman" van and headed for the Kingston Mines where Kid Dynamite and the Chi-Town Hustlers were playing in one room, Nellie "Tiger" Travis in the other. When the Groove Merchants and I walked into the club, Nellie was on already on stage and deep into singing "A Dime and A Quarter." There were children at the edge of the stage and Nellie was sharing the microphone with each of them. She would sing a line, then have the kids sing with her. During a Tina Turner number, she picked ladies from the crowd to be the "Proud Mary" dancers. Those women shook, strutted and pranced around the
stage in a way they would never attempt in their home environment. Travis knew how to bring out the tiger in those female fans. Her on-stage presentation held everyone's attention. Wearing a tiger-striped outfit that revealed her tummy as well as her talent, Nellie's husky, chocolatey voice dominated the room. When she sang "I Got It Like That," several men in the crowd agreed. She got it, all right, and they wanted to have it.
Travis' band, the Men in Black, welcomed 3 guests musicians. Shun Kikuta from Koko Taylor's band and Groovers Paul Wigens and T-Bone Thomas climbed on stage during the last set. The Men in Black blended that Minnesota groove right
into their fold and we rocked again until 4:30 in the morning. Guitar work by Shun Kikuta can be heard on Nellie's CD release "I Got It Like That." Harmonica player Billy Branch can also be found on that disc, along with the funky bass stylings of Dave "Biscuit" Miller, who also gets writing credit.
Son Seals also came out to the Mines Saturday night to shoot the breeze with Walter and Shirley. Nice man, but I was surprised to see him walking with a cane. I didn't know he had lost part of his leg due to diabetes complications. He remained
quiet most of the night, talking softly with Big Walter. Seals didn't play but he did ask why he'd never seen me at any of his Minnesota gigs. I promised him I would come out for his next concert here.
Sunday, our last day in Chicago, we checked out of our rooms around 11 o'clock in the am, then took off down the Navy Pier for a gospel music brunch at Dick's Last Resort. The brunch was a buffet with all kinds of food and beverages. I thought they might also offer some kind of champagne and orange juice ambrosia, but they didn't. At least not at the bar. No, the champagne was being served on stage, courtesy of the honey-toned voices of the Gospel Supremz. Diane Womack, Tanya Walker, Shirley Johnson and Joanne Graham harmonized their way though spirituals, gospels and a blend of softly soulful tunes with voices as smooth and rich as the chocolate covered strawberries we had for desert.
Dressed all in black with shades and baseball caps, the gospel house band looked suspiciously like some of the blues players we had seen playing "de debil's music" all weekend long. Proving that blues and gospel are spiritual cousins, the back-up band played a sedate, buttoned-down set, following the ladies through four-part renditions that ranged from Bill Withers' "Ain't No Sunshine" to a gospel-swing thing named "Call Jesus." The voices ranged from 1st soprano to contralto with Tanya and Diane taking the higher scales, Shirley and Joanne covering the bottom. The ladies each took the lead on certain songs which, by the way, did include some blues. The individual songs were good, but the set was stronger when all four vocal sounds traveled in synchronized fluidity, like an audio ballet performance. They worked well together, playing to one another's strengths, sharing personal stories and kidding each other with that certain type of intimate humor shared by close friends. Eye and hand cues were all that was necessary to keep the show rolling.
During a break, I caught up with drummer Mike Woods, keyboardist Pierre and bass player Woody to talk about gospel and blues music. They didn't give me their last names but they did verify that yes, indeed, they do play blues during the week
and gospel on Sunday mornings. Someone also added this comment: "A gig is a gig. We're getting paid. Gospel, blues,
jazz......we're playing, that's all that matters."
I talked with Shirley Johnson during breakfast and discovered that she's working on a solo CD project. Right now, her work can be heard on a fairly new release called "Mojo Mamas", out on the Blue Chicago label. I always get a good response from callers whenever I've played her cut "Paycheck in My Pocket" from that disc. I'm working to
arrange a radio interview with Ms. Johnson on KFAI, so keep an ear out. In the meantime, there's more on the Gospel Supremz at the MP3. com website. Once there, search for Gospel Supremz (please take note of the "z").
Diane Womack, called the ring leader and den mother by Tanya Walker, brought the mic out into the crowd to talk with Walter. They sang a little, then Diane asked T-Bone if he'd bought his "baby" with him. The trombone blended in well. I'm sure the band and the Supremz will agree.
When the music ended, it was time to hit the road for home. Shirley Smith's prediction: "We'll make it by 10 tonight," proved true. By 9:58 pm, the blues van was gliding up to my house in Minnesota, this time driven by Theresa, who took
over the wheel after the last bathroom break in Black River Falls.
I want to thank Shirley Smith and Shelley Shier of Hoss Entertainment for the great blues-a-rama. This same music line-up is scheduled to appear on the next blues cruise heading for France, Portugal and the Canary Islands. Billy Branch,
Grana' Louise, Big Walter and the Groove Merchants will join the entertainment planned for this winter. I'm saving up the money right now so I can go float'n with the blues boat in December. Hope to see all of you there, too!
Rollin & Tumblin
90. 3FM & 106. 7FM
Minneapolis, Minnesota 55454
This review is copyright © 2001 by Jacquie Maddix, and Blues On Stage, all rights reserved. Copy, duplication or download prohibited without written permission. For permission to use this review please send an E-mail to Ray Stiles.
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