A Guide to the Blues from Chicago and Beyond

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A Guide to the Blues from Chicago and Beyond

Chicago deserves its reputation as the capital of the blues. Though New Orleans and Memphis can make plausible claims, Chicago was home not only to many of the best artists but also to a critical mass of record labels, clubs and audience that kept the genre alive. When the great migration of Southern African-Americans came north in the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s, more of them landed in Chicago than anywhere else—and they brought the blues with them.

The greatest of the Chicago labels was Chess Records, which despite its sometime questionable business practices documented hundreds of immortal blues performances. Chess is gone, but keeping the tradition going are Delmark Records and Alligator Records.

Delmark is this year celebrating its long run with a new, single-disc compilation, Delmark Records 70th Anniversary Blues Anthology. Bob Koester founded the label (originally named Delmar) as a 21-year-old kid in St. Louis. But it became much more than a sideline when he moved to Chicago in 1958, opened the legendary store known as the Jazz Record Mart, and expanded his label.

The company’s importance is established with the compilation’s opening track: “Snatch It Back and Hold It” from Junior Wells’ 1965 debut album, Hoodoo Man Blues. This was a major shift in the evolution of the blues, as Well’s staccato vocals and sax-like harmonica blended James Brown funk with Chess Records blues with help from guitarist Buddy Guy.

Just as important was Magic Sam, exemplar of Chicago’s West Side Sound. Sam Maghett added deeper harmonies and tenser rhythms to the usual blues changes; he sang and soloed with wild abandon, especially on his two albums for Delmark before dying of a heart attack in 1969. The compilation includes the best version of his signature song, “All of Your Love.”

Koester’s insider knowledge of the record biz enabled him to lease key older recordings by T-Bone Walker, Dinah Washington and Little Walter, all included here. The set concludes with “Ashes in My Ashtray” by Jimmy Johnson, the best Chicago blues songwriter since Willie Dixon.

Delmark is bit older than Alligator. The latter label celebrated its half-century birthday in 2021 with its own compilation, Alligator Records: 50 Years of Genuine Houserockin’ Music. That set showcased one of the company’s brightest recent discoveries, Selwyn Birchwood, who has released an impressive new album this summer. Exorcist contains 13 strong originals by the singer/guitarist backed by his road band featuring the wild-card flavor of Regi Oliver’s baritone sax.

Those bottom-heavy horn riffs are used to good effect on “Florida Man,” a song about Birchwood’s home state and the detached-from-reality things some residents are known for. With Oliver and organist Ed Krout swirling the low end, Birchwood’s booming baritone relates how “Florida Man takes an alligator for beer runs” and “makes love when he’s handcuffed in a cop car.”

That sense of humor gives these songs a freshness that distinguishes them from the usual blues fare. He promises to bury an old love with a silver spade beneath a bush of dead roses. On “Swim at Your Own Risk,” he tells a comic tale of a thief running into a Florida swamp; the cops don’t catch him, but the gators do. These tunes are clearly geared for the blues bar circuit, but they stand out from the rest, thanks to the songwriting, the use of lap steel and sax, and Birchwood’s Hendrix-flavored guitar fills and solos.

Earlier this year, Alligator released the Cash Box Kings’ Oscar’s Motel, which owes its classic Chicago blues sound to the many years lead vocalist Oscar Wilson spent in the trenches of the South Side barrooms. To prove where he’s coming from, Wilson sings songs by Muddy Waters and Sonny Boy Williamson and delivers an uncanny imitation of Howlin’ Wolf on the title track.

But it’s the quality of the originals co-written by Wilson and/or producer/harmonica specialist Joe Nosek that makes this album much more than a mere revival. The title track evokes the kind of seedy motel where illicit love can flourish with barbecue on the side. The slow blues, “I Can’t Stand You,” a duet between Wilson and Deitra Farr, is a swinging, back-and-forth lovers quarrel. And “Down on the South Side” is contagious enough to convince you that the bottom of Chicago is still the top of the world.

Less impressive is Coco Montoya’s new album for Alligator, Writing on the Wall. It suffers from the kind of over-singing and over-playing that give contemporary blues a bad name.

The Nashville label, Easy Eye Sound, is only six years old, but it too has a new, celebratory anthology, Tell Everybody! (21st Century Juke Joint Blues). The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach is the company’s founder, in-house producer and in-house songwriter. He has released a broad spectrum of American roots music, but his emphasis has been on the original inspiration for the Keys, Mississippi juke-joint blues, and that’s what this new collection showcases.

The collection gets its title and striking cover photo from Robert Finley, the Louisiana gospel-soul singer who has converted to the Mississippi Hill Country cause. The title track invites everyone to a party, but the gradually building music is so slow and full of dread that it promises to be the strangest, most funereal bash of the season. R.L. Boyce pays tribute to his mentor R.L. Burnside with a slide-heavy version of “Coal Black Mattie,” and Leo “Bud” Welch is represented by his 2021 single, “Don’t Let the Devil Ride.”

The small town of Bentonia, Mississippi, evolved its own brand of blues with its own tunings and high, lonesome singing. Skip James and Jack Owens were the original masters, and Jimmy “Duck” Holmes is their living-legend heir. For this compilation, the Black Keys contribute their muscular version of Owens’ “No Lovin’,” while Holmes is represented by his lean and mean “Catfish Blues.” Gabe Carter, a younger Chicagoan who has devoted himself to the Bentonia sound, provides two respectable cuts.

Auerbach himself puts a psychedelic-boogie spin on an original blues, “Every Chance I Get (I Want You in the Flesh).” The Akron singer also pays tribute to his early Ohio hero (and early guitarist for the James Gang), Glenn Schwartz, by showcasing the late singer on two tracks.

Another contributor to the compilation is Nat Myers, who has just released his debut album, Yellow Peril, with Auerbach producing and co-writing nine of the 10 songs. The title track is an allusion to Myers’ Korean-American background. The lyrics complain that folks with “eyes that look like mine” are viewed with suspicion by immigration officials and college admissions offices alike, even though they “just wanna have a little fun before we die.”

Myers’ notion of “a little fun” is refashioning the Mississippi country blues of the 1930s as a vehicle for the poetry he studied at the New School in Manhattan and the rambling-musician life that has taken him from Louisville to Memphis and beyond. Sometimes he tries to cram too many syllables into a line, but when the words and groove link up, his relaxed tenor, tapping foot and sparkling fingerpicking can make you believe that the music of the 1930s might be the perfect response to the angst of the 2020s.

Bobby Rush is 89, old enough to have befriended Elmore James, Pinetop Perkins and Ike Turner in the Arkansas Delta in the late ’40s and Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, and Jimmy Reed in Chicago in the mid ’50s. He remains a teenage smart aleck at heart, however, and he has written and recorded 10 irreverent, party songs for his new album, All My Love for You. There’s nothing gimmicky about this project—no famous guest stars, no high-minded concept—just a tight little quartet pumping out funky blues about hard times and fickle women, a fresh dose of what Rush has been doing so well for three-quarters of a century.

On “I’m the One,” he boasts that he’s “the one who put the funk in the blues” over a push-and-pull dance groove. It’s a plausible claim, but more importantly, he’s the one who put the punchline in the blues. He’s always had a flair for over-the-top lyrics that turn the ongoing battles between men and women, the rich and the poor, the musician and the biz into crackling good jokes. On this album, he rewrites his signature song, “One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show” as “One Monkey Can Stop a Show” by describing the many ways a vengeful lover can end it all for the one who did her wrong. It’s as funny as it is funky.

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