Although fans of the rich blues heritage of Texas and other regions may sometimes bristle at being passed over in historical surveys, one fact is indisputable: No single city is more important to the hugely influential sound of modern blues than sweet home Chicago.
Since it functioned as a kind of post-WWII industrial promised land for thousands of working-class blacks from the Deep South, the Illinois metropolis naturally became the main birthplace of electric blues. It was the quintessential right spot at the right time, the thriving center for a type of socioeconomic and artistic convergence that would forever alter the complexion of popular music.
From the fields of the Mississippi Delta in particular, African-American immigrants brought acoustic folk traditions and old blues tunes to Chi-town. But in the rowdy clubs of Chicago's South Side, their music quickly changed to accommodate new realities. Amplification of voice and instruments, newly urbanized attitudes, the evolution of the classic combo format and aggressive record companies all profoundly energized the genre. In doing so, these forces also established the first modern blues superstars (such as Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf) and set the stage, so to speak, for rock and roll.
Most people directly involved in this crucial cultural metamorphosis have since died, but a few of the old-timers are still around and continue to perform. This week a package tour billed as The Chicago Blues Bash pulls into town, featuring two living links to those electrified glory days, plus one relative youngster whose repertoire and style reach all the way back to the country roots where this music actually began.
Buddy Guy is arguably the most popular African-American blues guitarist still jamming today, having a substantially stronger following among nonblack audiences than the genre's elder statesman, B.B. King.
Though he's now approaching his mid-sixties, Guy retains a youthful energy and contagious passion. He especially seems to relish displays of over-the-top showmanship on stage, working his black-and-white polka dot Fender guitar like an impossibly athletic and inexhaustible lover.
Guy first started playing in his late teens in his home state of Louisiana, backing Baton Rouge legends such as Lightnin' Slim, Lazy Lester and Slim Harpo. After relocating to Chicago in 1957, he worked the club scene with Magic Sam and Otis Rush for a while before breaking into the recording business, first on Cobra and then the Chess label. There he backed major artists such as Muddy Waters and Sonny Boy Williamson on some of the best blues sides ever put on wax.
Unfortunately, Guy's career had languished severely by the 1980s. Yet various rock guitar icons, most notably Eric Clapton, still held him in high esteem. In fact, a certain well-known Texas son once declared, "Without Buddy Guy, there would be no Stevie Ray Vaughan." Eventually invited to tour with Clapton, Vaughan and others, Guy was discovered by a new generation of fans, who laid the groundwork for the biggest career comeback in blues history. It all kicked off formally with his smash-hit 1991 debut CD on the Silvertone label, Damn Right I've Got the Blues.
Since then, Guy has gone on to win four Grammy awards and more W.C. Handy trophies from The Blues Foundation than any other artist. Billboard magazine even granted him a Century Award (its highest honor for distinguished creative achievement). As expected, he has stayed intensely busy touring and making albums. His latest, Heavy Love, plays up his appeal to the most profitable demographic target, as evidenced by a highly promoted guest appearance (on one track) by white teen phenom Jonny Lang. Though blues purists might cringe at the rock-god persona Guy often assumes with his please-the-masses guitar pyrotechnics, the old cat still knows how to bend a note and make it moan the truth.
Like Guy, another of the tour's headliners, Koko Taylor was born way down south (in Memphis) and migrated to Chicago in the 1950s. There she, too, absorbed and participated in the creation of modern blues. Her big break came one day when the songwriting genius behind so many Chess Records classics, bassist and producer Willie Dixon, heard her sing in a South Side club and promptly took her under his wing. He went on to pen her signature 1965 hit, "Wang Dang Doodle," one of the rawest and toughest party tunes ever sung. Also like Guy, Taylor has dominated the W.C. Handy Awards in recent years, winning more honors (14) than any other female artist. Likewise, she has scored six Grammy nominations in the last two decades, including one that produced a winner in 1984.
However, in contrast to Guy, with whom she used to play (along with the late great Junior Wells) in Chicago clubs way back when, Taylor has never strayed far from the defining Chess sound of the 1950s and '60s. Over numerous albums, most recently on the Alligator label, the justly dubbed "Queen of the Blues" has interpreted classic material with her trademark growl and wall-shaking vocal exhortations. One of her previous CD titles, Force of Nature, aptly describes her stage presence. She can be one fierce mama. And her band, The Blues Machine, plays it straight, hard and true.
In an era when female singers often seem to depend as much on looks as musical talent, large and good-humored Koko Taylor personifies the tradition of great blues women reaching back to Bessie Smith and Memphis Minnie.
The youngest of the three headliners, Corey Harris, has ties to Chicago via only his record label (Alligator). However, his music reminds us of where the blues originated, before its electric transformation in the Windy City.
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Harris is a rarity: a 30-year-old college-educated black musician with great knowledge and respect for the rural acoustic blues style epitomized by long-gone practitioners such as Son House or Mississippi Fred McDowell. On his debut CD, 1995's Between Midnight and Day, Harris pays homage to the old-style delta blues masters, playing solo mostly on his National steel guitar. He wowed many listeners with his dead-on slide work and from-the-heart vocal delivery. His follow-up effort, 1997's Fish Ain't Bitin', reprised the solo acoustic treatment of classic material on some tracks but also featured eight original compositions and occasional accompaniment by bass or an attractively quirky brass band.
Harris's recently released CD, Greens from the Garden, is an idiosyncratic musical gumbo that fuses blues classics such as "Sweet Black Angel" or "Diddy Wah Diddy" with new originals and is supported by numerous other blues musicians (especially some funky percussionists). In terms of rhythms and lyrics, the record also offers a unique blend of folk blues, New Orleans ragtime and stripped-down reggae (reflecting the Rastafarian sensibility that has been implicit in Harris's physical appearance since his debut). And for the first time on record, Harris puts aside the acoustic instruments from time to time and plugs in an electric guitar. But make no mistake: This ain't no Buddy Guy rock-out jam. Harris's sound may be evolving, but it remains true to its primal roots.
As a trio of featured performers, Buddy Guy, Koko Taylor and Corey Harris collectively offer a rich sampler of diverse styles. Despite some marked differences among them (in terms of material, instrumentation and presentation), they collectively demonstrate a wide range of ways that African-Americans are defining blues music at the end of the century.
The Chicago Blues Bash takes place on Friday, April 30, at 8 p.m. at the Arena Theatre, 7326 Southwest Freeway. Tickets are $35 and $30. Call (713)988-1020.