First, a bit about Rosa's. Dubbed "Chicago's Friendliest Blues Lounge," Rosa's Lounge is a family-owned and operated blues club on Chicago's Near Northwest Side, ten minutes from downtown. Chicago Magazine named Rosa's the #1 Blues Club in Chicago in 1998. This year Rosa's is celebrating its sixteenth anniversary. Tony Manguillo owns and operates the club along with his mother, Rosa. Manguillo, himself a blues drummer who moved to Chicago from Milan, Italy twenty years ago in search of authentic Chicago blues, says, "Our philosophy is that Rosa's is a vehicle for appreciation and education. To enjoy something, you have to learn about it." In keeping with this philosophy, Rosa's has facilitated public education about the blues by both preserving the history of the masters and providing exposure to newer entrants. Called a "Mecca for true believers" by Rolling Stone Magazine and "a nightly reminder of why Chicago is the blues capital of the world," by Chicago Magazine, Rosa's Lounge plans to continue on its illustrious path well into the millennium.
On the second anniversary of his passing, Rosa's hosted this Junior Wells tribute. Billy Branch came to Chicago in 1969 as a teenager and used to hang out at Teresa's and other west side clubs. During this show he recalled the first time he saw Wells, the "little bitty dude with the bad lid on his head." Since he became a "student" of Junior's, Branch was a perfect choice for this tribute show.
He was aided and abetted by S.O.B.'s Johnny V on guitar, Nick Charles on bass, and Mose Rutues on drum. A frequent guest with the band, 21-year-old Harunobu Tsuchida sat in on piano. Not all songs were those of Junior Wells. There was more banter about him than tunes by him, but that was fine. They started out with Branch's own "Son of Juke", a great instrumental (based on Little Walter's "Juke") that appears on the 1997 Branch CD "Satisfy Me". It included several key changes and a funky solo from Charles, who by the way was dressed to kill in a brown suit and hat, gold chains and a gold Mickey Mouse pendant. "Juke" segued into "I Just Want a Little Bit", followed by "Shake, Rattle and Roll" and the Billy Branch original "New Kid on the Block."
Other tunes that Wells recorded included Sonny Boy Williamson's "Good Morning Little Schoolgirl", and Willie Dixon's "Hoochie Coochie Man". "Scratch My Back" was next with some cool call-and-response between Branch and Johnny.
In addition, we heard SBW's "Eyesight to the Blind" and "Help Me" as well as a rockin', gear-switchin' version of Junior Parker's "Next Time You See Me", Son Seals' "You Belong to Me", and "T-Bone Shuffle"-the last three all featuring Johnny V on vocals.
This band really smokes. They lay down a tight groove and they display a level of professionalism not always seen in blues. They also have an added dimension in that they ALL sing, and they all sing well. You don't see that very often either.
Word has it Branch just about blew all other players (including Kim Wilson and Rod Piazza) off the stage recently at Mark Hummel's annual Harp Blowout in California, and after seeing his "harp attack" live, I can easily believe it. He can flutter like a songbird one moment and barrel down the tracks at top speed the next. He got up-close-and-personal with some fans at Rosa's near the end of the night, stepping down from the stage and doing his thang just inches from their faces. Let's hope Billy Branch and the S.O.B.'s find their way up to our neck of the woods soon. And if not, grab one of those cheap flights to Chicago some weekend and check them out!
This review is copyright © 2000 by Ann Wickstrom, and Blues On Stage, all rights reserved. Copy, duplication or download prohibited without written permission.