I must write this on the eve of Labor Day’s three-day weekend, so I can’t very well tell you how it went, how it was — what the hell. There is a distinct shade of blue over September, with the bite of a promised Chicago winter in the air. Humphrey’s Backstage Live is hosting the Labor Day Blues Festival with Robin Henkel. Hand him his Les Paul, and he can carve out a piece of Chicago; hand him a steel guitar with a resonating pan, and he can deliver the Delta sound. He makes them both sound easy.
Humphrey’s has also booked Bill Magee, John Lee Hooker Jr. (chip off the old block), plus Chet Cannon, Mercedes Moore, Red Lotus Review, Laurie Morvan, Dennis Jones, and Stony B. and his band.
I just met Stony, and we got to talking Chicago blues. He’s played with just about everybody. All I could bring to my blues creds was 45 years of imitating everybody and getting drunk once with Junior Wells. I will try to catch Stony tonight at South Park Abbey, on Fern Street. Len Rainey is at Patrick’s II tonight as well (also Friday night), and he’s the real thing or no one is. The following Tuesday, same place, they have Bayou Brothers; heard them and wrote about them about a year ago, and I stand by every hyperbolic superlative I typed.
ZZ Top is not Chicago but Texas, and that blues twang is close enough for rock and roll or government work or the Del Mar Fair, whatever you want to say. They’ll be here Saturday, September 4, and history by now.
We also have Blues Traveler coming to the Belly Up Tavern on September 29 — not exactly the Chicago sound, but they’ll do in a pinch. To stretch a point, Van Morrison is coming in October; and though he’s hardly Chicago, he has as much blues and soul as Sam Cooke did. Easy.
Still in a kind of nostalgic distraction attributable (I’ll say again) to the quality of light this time of year, memory announces itself with images of all the barrooms I’ve played over the decades. Imitations of Buddy Guy and/or Clapton on fret boards, B.B. King on both guitar and microphone, as well as Eric Burdon (whom Brian Jones called England’s best blues singer), each parroting exercise falling short of the mark, the note or breath falling short of the phrase, I was denying the truth of being reasonably good but without any real greatness in my fingers or throat. For years after my death, I may well be avoiding fundamental truths of the afterlife.
At the end of October, the 21st, you can see Taj Mahal at Viejas as he ties Chicago sounds to Louisiana echoes. Saw him a bunch in the Windy City when I was young, and I don’t recall a bad performance, ever.
The Chicago sound might be described as that of a raucous barroom on payday, a tavern just beneath the el tracks and next door to a tool-and-die factory where all the machinists silt up on a January night when the hawk is abroad on wings off the lake. The guitarist on the stage might be playing T-Bone’s or Bobby Blue’s “Stormy Monday,” and the slow 12 bars might sound sad to the uninitiated; but no one at the bar is crying about a thing, just nodding in recognition as that punch-press operator with the Stratocaster stings out a punctuation to the line, “…Tuesday’s just as bad.” Picture that bar filled with cigarette and cheap White Owl cigar smoke; the men inhaling as if there were something philosophical in burning tobacco, and the women posing with 100-millimeter jobs or even cheroots like sexual props. Maybe you can still smoke in bars in Illinois. When that punch-press riffsmith launches into Sonny Boy’s “Keys to the Highway,” the room becomes electrified, and that bone-dead factory weariness slips away onto the dance floor on the soles of those brand-new shoes you bought on Wabash Avenue after work because Champion Jack Dupree wrote, “When you got the blues/ they ain’t nothin’ left to do/ ’cept go out and buy yo’self a new pair of shoes/ I got those walkin’ blues/ hand me down my walkin’ cane…” and you’re laughing, and it’s not just the bourbon and the beers but just that you’ve never seen that stone-faced mother who works across the slag vat from you ever crack a smile since you got the job there, much less bust loose on a dance floor, which is what he’s doing now, prancing like a fool.
And I’ll always remember the Junior Wells interview on tape, when I listened the next day, hungover. Incomprehensible.