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The Reader's Guide to Chicago Blues Fest 2009

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For 2009 the same financial pressures we're all feeling have forced the Chicago Blues Festival to slim down from four days to three—but that's not necessarily a bad thing. Past fests have sometimes been spread pretty thin across those four days. Many artists played multiple times on multiple stages, and some sets ran so long they wore out their welcome. The need to keep expenses down also seems to have motivated the festival's organizers to lean more heavily on local acts, many of whom aren't well-known outside their immediate south- and west-side communities—a move that should appease critics who've complained that the fest ought to pay more attention to indigenous strains of blues.

Performers like Walter Scott, Jesi' Terrell, Vernon Harrington, and Cyrus Hayes play the kind of meat-and-potatoes blues and soul that's long been a staple of the city's neighborhood scenes, and for fans who've never ventured beyond tourist-oriented nightspots (in other words, the majority of the folks who'll be at the fest), the spirit and quality of their music will be a revelation. Several homegrown acts whose fame reaches overseas but who still gig regularly around town—Lurrie Bell, John Primer, Lil' Ed—will appear this year as well, reminding us that in the blues world, a local artist is often just an international artist who isn't on the road.

Of course, that's not to say there's no out-of-town star power here. Sharon Jones, who headlines Sunday night, may seem almost quaint in the era of Lil Wayne, but she delivers her retro soul with deep-hearted passion, and her success has sparked new interest in the classic styles that inform her music. (If you want to see some folks who were making music when that sound was popular, I recommend the Rabbit Factory Soul Revue, Sunday on the Front Porch stage.) Bettye LaVette, an old-schooler who's finally earning the praise she deserves, headlines on Saturday, and though her recording career will shortly enter its fifth decade she's still at her soul-shredding best. Other out-of-towners, like Nolan Struck and Lil' Dave Thompson, are solid but underappreciated talents, stalwarts on their home turf but little known outside it. They'll provide a taste of what blues fans in Mississippi or Alabama hear when they go to the local juke or show lounge on a Saturday night.

Traditionally each Chicago Blues Festival has had a theme, often connected to the centennial of a famous blues artist's birth. This year that artist is slide-guitar master Robert Nighthawk, a neglected progenitor of the postwar Chicago style. Born Robert Lee McCollum in 1909, Nighthawk recorded for the Aristocrat label (which would later become Chess) in the late 40s and early 50s. He played with a forward-looking blend of rawness and urbanity, and one of his tunes, "Black Angel Blues" (also known as "Sweet Black Angel"), was the prototype for B.B. King's famous "Sweet Little Angel."

But the death of the great Koko Taylor on June 3 means that this year's festival will have another honoree. "Sweet Black Angel," the theme of Saturday night's Petrillo show, has become a tribute to Taylor as well as Nighthawk. Her signature hit, "Wang Dang Doodle," from 1965, was arguably the last "pure" Chicago blues record to hit the charts. In the 70s she earned international acclaim, becoming one of Chicago's most beloved blues ambassadors and defending her hard-earned title, "Queen of the Blues," with dignity, artistic integrity, and sassy noblesse oblige. A photo of Taylor will grace the main stage all three nights, and fans and well-wishers are invited to write tributes, reminiscences, and messages of support for Taylor's family on a "memory wall."

The fest takes place across six stages this year. The Petrillo Music Shell, where the fest's headliners play each evening, is just northeast of Columbus and Jackson. The Front Porch stage, which features mostly acoustic artists and small bands, is on Jackson east of Michigan. The Route 66 Roadhouse, which hosts panel discussions and interviews with musicians, scholars, and other notable blues figures, is at Columbus and Jackson. The Crossroads stage, which features electric blues from local and national artists, is at Jackson and Lake Shore Drive. The Mississippi Juke Joint, whose lineup is something of a grab bag this year, is near Columbus and Congress, south of the Lincoln statue. The Maxwell Street Corner stage, new for 2009, will provide an informal venue for the Maxwell Street Foundation and other blues-related nonprofits as well as performers associated with the fabled open-air market—Bobby Too Tough on Friday, Piano C. Red on Saturday, and Dancin' Perkins on Sunday. It's on Columbus between Jackson and Monroe, and there will be music on and off between 1 and 4 PM.

The festival's most notable acts are described below. All events are free. —DW


Front Porch

Noon Blues in the Schools: The Stone Academy All-Stars with Katherine Davis, Daryl Coutts, and Eric Noden

1:30 PM Gloria Thompson Rogers

3 PM Big Bill Morganfield and Mud Morganfield with guests Pinetop Perkins and Willie "Big Eyes" Smith

5 PM Andrew "Jr. Boy" Jones Guitarist Andrew "Jr. Boy" Jones got started in the Dallas blues scene in the 1960s, when he was still in his teens, playing with the mighty Freddie King as well as soul singer Bobby Patterson and his band the Mustangs. Jones later spent long stints behind Katie Webster and Charlie Musselwhite (see below), and in the 90s he finally emerged as a bandleader in his own right. But even today his stinging guitar style retains some of King's muscle and fire—and his hearty vocals are just as satisfying. —BD

6:30 PM Charlie Musselwhite Band You won't find a blues singer more laid-back than Charlie Musselwhite. Even on up-tempo numbers, he eases into his vocals with a down-home drawl—it makes for a stark contrast with his harmonica playing, which is gritty, turbocharged, and unstintingly innovative. Musselwhite spent his formative years in Memphis and Chicago, learning from masters like Big Joe Williams and John Lee Hooker; he emerged as a young bandleader in the mid-60s, and he's been taking the blues harp in new directions from the get-go. —BD


1 PM The Chicago Blues Experience featuring Vince Agwada and Russ Green

2:30 PM Mary Lane's Blues All-Stars

4 PM Sherman "Moody" Thomas & the Lee's Unleaded Revue Chicago vocalist Sherman "Moody" Thomas does a few 12-bar blues numbers on his debut CD, Mississippi Woman (Kat-Annie), but he sounds more comfortable on poppier material like the minor-key ballad "Cheated Myself," where his casual delivery evokes the kind of homeboy-to-homeboy philosophizing and confidence sharing that's long been a staple of soul music. Thomas is also a flamboyant showman, and the revue he's bringing to the Blues Festival stage features veteran soul and R & B singer Joanne Graham; they'll play an afterset tonight at Lee's Unleaded Blues, starting at 8 PM and running into the wee hours. —DW

6 PM Grana' Louise

Vocalist Grana' Louise can dominate a stage with authoritative sass, and her persona never devolves into the cheap "blooze mama" posturing that so many of her contemporaries seem to find irresistible. Full-bodied throughout its range, her voice can bring both passion and nuance to fare ranging from Gershwin's "Summertime" to Bessie Smith's "Sing Sing Prison Blues" and Howlin' Wolf's declamatory "Smokestack Lightnin'"—all of which appear, alongside several well-crafted originals, on her latest CD, the self-released Generations. Louise and her band the Troublemakers also play at the Blue Chicago at 736 N. Clark tonight at 9 PM. —DW

Route 66 Roadhouse

12:30 PM Charles "Wsir" Johnson

2:30 PM Donna Herula

4 PM Remembering Nighthawk: A Panel Discussion Dedicated to the Memory of Robert Lee "Nighthawk" McCollum

5:30 PM Beginning Blues Progression Workshop

7 PM East of Edens Soul Express

Mississippi Juke Joint

12:30 PM Eddie Taylor Jr. with Harmonica Hinds

2 PM Maxwell Street Revisited featuring Dancin' Perkins, Iceman Robinson, Smilin' Bobby, Bobby Too Tough, and Frank "Lil Sonny" Scott Jr.

3:30 PM Sam Lay Though he invented the "double shuffle" (adapting the syncopated beats he heard in church as a youth) and for decades ranked among Chicago's most propulsive blues drummers (he was a driving force behind Howlin' Wolf and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band in the 60s), these days Sam Lay is just as likely to play the guitar. But no matter what his instrument, the immaculately attired Lay—he's partial to zoot suits—packs a powerful vocal punch. —BD

5 PM Fernando Jones & the Columbia College Blues Ensemble

6:30 PM Festival Jam Session with the Cash Box Kings

Petrillo Music Shell

7 PM Shirley Johnson Vocalist and entrepreneur Little Scotty brought singer Shirley Johnson here from Virginia in 1983, hoping to make her a star. It took some time, but she's become one of Chicago's premier club attractions with her sassy blend of blues and soul. Her recordings on Delmark capture her full-bodied voice and feisty spirit quite well, but to really appreciate her gifts you need to catch her onstage. Johnson and her band also play the Blue Chicago at 536 N. Clark at 9 PM on Thursday, June 11 (and again on Sunday, June 14). —DW

8:20 PM Eddie C. Campbell 70th Birthday Celebration Guitarist Eddie C. Campbell cut a few sides for local labels in the 60s, but he didn't really come into his own till 1977, with the release of the LP King of the Jungle (Mr. Blues). Both his stage and his studio career have been somewhat sporadic since then, but he always makes a good showing when he pops up: his 1994 disc for Blind Pig earned warm reviews, and his powers are undiminished on the new Tear This World Up (Delmark), even though he's entering his seventh decade. Campbell's trademark deep-pocket shuffle is still irresistibly propulsive, and his sparse, focused guitar lines—which often invoke the droning, modally organized harmonic structures favored by the likes of Howlin' Wolf in days gone by—satisfy both musically and emotionally. He wrote or cowrote most of the album's songs, and his clever, quirky lyrics remain a fount of joy and surprise. Campbell also plays at Reggie's Music Joint at 8 PM on Saturday, June 13. —DW


Front Porch

Noon Earwig Records' Tribute to Sunnyland featuring Aaron Moore, Allen Batts, and Dennis Binder Of the three 88s aces costarring at this annual tribute to Chicago piano patriarch Albert "Sunnyland Slim" Luandrew, Aaron Moore comes closest to Slim's two-fisted approach. A Mississippi native, Moore was a postwar Chicago piano man himself, but his musical career was a weekend-only affair till he retired from his city job in 1988—and he's been making up for lost time since then. Allen Batts is a more modern player than Moore but also conversant with straight-ahead Chicago blues; he's contributed his impeccable keyboard stylings to the local scene for decades and is particularly renowned for the supple support he provided on Albert Collins's seminal 1978 album, Ice Pickin'. Dennis Binder made some of his earliest recordings in 1954 with Ike Turner's Kings of Rhythm, pounding the ivories with abandon, and he still sometimes rocks the house with one of those old tunes: the glorious ode to booze "Early Times." Even though he's 80, he sometimes carries his electric keyboard around while he plays, and on his 2007 Earwig CD, Hole in That Jug, he blasts out his boisterous brand of blues with everything he's got. —BD

2 PM Holle Thee Maxwell Holly Maxwell recorded some notable sides for Chicago's Constellation and Star labels in the 60s, but for most of the 70s she lived in California where she sang with Ike Turner's revue and organist Jimmy Smith. She's since reestablished herself in Chicago as "Holle Thee Maxwell," a growling, provocatively clad sex kitten—quite a change from the sweet-voiced "girl singer" who melted hearts back in the day. —DW

3:30 PM Ray Allison

5 PM Lil' Ed & the Blues Imperials Slide guitarist Lil' Ed Williams, nephew of legendary Chicago slide man J.B. Hutto, exploded onto the scene in 1986 with Roughhousin' (Alligator) and has since established himself internationally as a master of roadhouse-rocking blues—the kind of stuff every frat-house band with enough beer in it thinks it can play. Of course it actually takes considerable craftsmanship to do it well, and Williams has plenty of that: even at his most unhinged, he plays with spot-on precision, supporting his sonic onslaughts with carefully worked-out ideas. He can also communicate a surprising degree of nuance, especially on ballads like "Dying to Live" and "Life Got in the Way," both from last year's Alligator release Full Tilt: his resonant baritone voice lends his tales of hard times and shattered hearts a stark feeling of vulnerability. Almost as welcome as Williams's musicianship is his self-deprecating humor: with his trademark fez, his often goofy onstage antics, and his "Ed Heads" fan club (some of whom show up at gigs with their own homemade fezzes), he's a breath of fresh air in a blues world overrun with self-important poseurs. Lil' Ed & the Blues Imperials also play at Rosa's Lounge tonight at 10 PM and at Buddy Guy's Legends on Sunday, June 14, at 10:30 PM. —DW

6:30 PM Nolan Struck with King Edward and special guests Known for his milky high-tenor croon, Nolan Struck recorded in Chicago for the One-Derful and ICT labels in the 60s and early 70s; on more recent outings for Paula and Top Star he's still at the top of his game. Struck's brother, guitarist King Edward, adds a bluesy bite to the music, but the main attraction is still that haunting voice—one of the most memorable sounds in contemporary soul-blues. —DW


Noon Lurrie Bell Guitarist Lurrie Bell, son of harmonica master Carey Bell, is almost as well-known for the demons he's conquered—mental illness, homelessness, the recent deaths of almost everyone close to him, including his father and the woman he considered his soul mate—as he is for his music. That's a shame, because Bell is one of the most gifted artists in contemporary blues; he doesn't need propping up with a "suffering saint" backstory, and nobody ever ought to wonder what's behind his reputation. His guitar playing can be frighteningly fierce, but never at the expense of accuracy—on ballads and up-tempo numbers alike he places his notes perfectly, pouring his seemingly limitless store of emotional intensity into each one. That intensity can make even a solo in a romping major-key barn burner sound like a dispatch from some private hell, but in the great tradition of the blues, Bell's music is about prevailing over darkness, not wallowing in it. There's no self-pity or tortured-poet posing here—just a first-class bluesman, still relatively young and joyously at the top of his game. On Thursday, June 11, Bell plays an acoustic set as part of an 8 PM show at SPACE in Evanston that also includes Jody Williams, James Wheeler, and Billy Flynn. And on Friday, June 12, Bell plays at Buddy Guy's Legends at noon and at Rosa's Lounge at 9:30 PM. —DW

1:45 PM Cyrus Hayes and Lady Lee

3:30 PM Travis "Moonchild" Haddix

Route 66 Roadhouse

12:30 PM Charles "Wsir" Johnson

2:30 PM The Art of the Slide: Elmore James Jr., Jeremy Spencer, Lil' Ed, and John Primer

4:30 PM Samuel James

6:30 PM East of Edens Soul Express

Mississippi Juke Joint

12:30 PM Terry "Harmonica" Bean

2 PM Eden Brent

3:30 PM Lil' Dave Thompson Mississippi-born guitarist Lil' Dave Thompson incorporates elements of contemporary rock, R & B, and soul-blues as well as ideas borrowed from sophisticated blues stylists like Albert Collins and B.B. King, but his sound never loses its juke-joint rawness. He plays with a searing tone and an obsessive drive, even when he splinters his lines with staccato stutters and unexpected off-time fillips. This is what "down-home blues" really sounds like down home. —DW

5 PM John Primer & the Real Deal Blues Band During the decade or so he spent with Magic Slim & the Teardrops in the 80s and 90s (and in his time with Muddy Waters before that), John Primer was a model of consistency, an ensemble guitarist of the first order who never played too many notes and always complemented the flow. When he began his solo career, he proved just as tasteful and reliable even with nobody to defer to. Primer's a Chicago blues traditionalist at heart, but his tough-as-nails leads and insistent vocals keep his stage show from sounding like a historical reenactment. He also plays tonight at 8 PM at Buddy Guy's Legends, and on Friday, June 12, at 8 PM he shares the bill with David "Honeyboy" Edwards, Big Jack Johnson, and many others at an Earwig Records 30th-anniversary celebration at SPACE in Evanston. —BD

6:30 PM Festival Jam Session hosted by Demetria Taylor

Petrillo Music Shell

5 PM Walter Scott hosts "South-side Angels" featuring Mz Peachez, Claudette, and Ms. Jesi' Walter Scott is one of Chicago's most respected guitarists, with a resumé that includes sessions with the elite of the soul and blues worlds; here he's supporting three south-side singers. Claudette and Mz Peachez deliver blues and soul-blues standards with a gutsy power that only occasionally tips over into shrillness. Ms. Jesi', aka Jesi' Terrell, digs a little deeper; on ballads she's capable of both seductive intimacy and churchy fervor, and even on up-tempo material she can sound sensitive and vulnerable. —DW

6:40 PM Trudy Lynn with the Chicago Rhythm & Blues Kings featuring Gene "Daddy G" Barge Houston singer Trudy Lynn has been a presence on the national stage since the 80s, with an alluring style that blends blues and soul. She's backed here by the Chicago Rhythm & Blues Kings, featuring trumpeter Don Tenuto and tenor saxist Terry Ogolini, formerly the heart and soul of Big Twist's Mellow Fellows; they're fronted by sax legend Gene "Daddy G" Barge, whose jabbing solos have graced hits by Chuck Willis, Gary U.S. Bonds, Little Milton, Koko Taylor, and countless more. —BD

8:20 PM Bettye LaVette No longer revered solely by soul aficionados who adore her formidable 60s sides, Bettye LaVette has crossed into the mainstream with a vengeance, performing at President Obama's inaugural celebration and singing the Who's "Love Reign O'er Me" at the Kennedy Center Honors late last year. That's a long way from LaVette's old Detroit stomping grounds, where she recorded her first national hit, the sassy "My Man—He's a Lovin' Man," in 1962, when she was 16. She'd have another smash in '65 with the shattering ballad "Let Me Down Easy," still her signature tune, and in '82 she put out her first LP, Tell Me a Lie, on Motown—but not even that kept LaVette's name on people's lips. The tide finally turned decisively with her 2005 CD, I've Got My Own Hell to Raise (Anti-), where she tackled a revelatory set of contemporary pop covers (Aimee Mann, Dolly Parton, Sinead O'Connor) that few could've expected her to make her own the way she did. LaVette doesn't sing a song so much as act it out and inhabit it from within, wringing every last drop of pain or joy from the lyrics until the audience is nearly as emotionally spent as she is. —BD


Front Porch

Noon Lee Boys Gospel musicians have been playing steel guitar since at least the 1930s, but it wasn't till 1997, when the Arhoolie label released the first of its "Sacred Steel" compilations (thus giving the music its popular name), that people could easily hear it outside the services of the Pentecostal sect known as the House of God. Since then the style has evolved with startling speed, becoming popular at venues of all kinds and attracting an especially avid fan base on the jam-band circuit. The Lee Boys—three brothers and three nephews from Perrine, Florida—exemplify this evolution. Lead vocalists Keith and Derrick Lee have developed an ornate style that melds contemporary gospel and urban neosoul; the interplay between Alvin Lee's rhythm guitar, Alvin Cordy Jr.'s bass, and Kenneth Earl Walker's drums sometimes sounds as if it owes as much to the JB's as it does to Jesus; and Roosevelt Collier's keening, voicelike pedal-steel figures are both ecstatically spiritual and dangerously sensual. But the message in their lyrics remains staunchly righteous—salvation has never sounded like such a good time. —DW

1:30 PM Christland Singers

3 PM Lou Pride & the Blues Disciples A soul survivor in the truest sense of the term, Lou Pride was born just outside Chicago but cut his first sides in the early 1970s in El Paso and Memphis. Pride, who expertly straddles the blues-soul fence, spent many years riding the chitlin' circuit, but his profile has risen lately thanks to the acclaimed CDs he'd released through Severn in the aughts, which spotlight his rich, smoky voice and intimate style. —BD

4:45 PM Rabbit Factory Soul Revue The soul revues organized by John Ciba of the Rabbit Factory label (and usually staged at the Hideout, where he DJs regularly with the East of Edens Soul Express) are a delightful treat for fans of old-school R & B, showcasing legendary singers who otherwise might never roll through town. This special edition features Ralph "Soul" Jackson, an energetic performer whose rough-hewn vocals epitomize southern soul intensity; he hails from Phenix City, Alabama, and earned his reputation with a handful of 45s he made in the late 60s and 70s (now obscenely rare), notably a cover of Cream's "Sunshine of Your Love" cut in Muscle Shoals and produced by Spooner Oldham. Jackson shares the spotlight with dynamic Milwaukee-based singer Harvey Scales, who cowrote Johnnie Taylor's smash "Disco Lady" and recorded some soul grinders of his own in the late 60s—"Love-itis," "Get Down," "Broadway Freeze"—that were a lot sweatier and more frenzied. House band Wiley & the Checkmates, a young R & B group from Oxford, Mississippi, fronted by veteran singer Herbert Wiley, tries to capture the horn-driven vibe of four decades ago. The Checkmates also take the stage at the Hideout on Saturday, June 13, during the East of Edens Soul Express dance party; it starts late, after Doug McCombs & David Daniell's set. —BD

6:30 PM Vernon Harrington & the Atomic Blues Band


Noon Tre' & the Blue Knights with Lady Kat Guitarist Tre' Hardiman likes to bill himself as a traditional postwar Chicago bluesman, and he does have deep roots in that style—he can choke strings and moan with the best of them. But the sophistication of his chord choices and his penchant for high-volume, high-speed solos mark him as a thoroughly contemporary artist, in debt to Hendrix and all the pyrotechnicians who followed in his footsteps. Hardiman's band is joined here by singer Lady Kat, who delivers blues and soul-blues standards with feisty, Koko Taylor-esque bravado. —DW

1:45 PM Ernest Lane & the Kings of Rhythm Growing up in Clarksdale, Mississippi, Ernest Lane and his boyhood buddy Ike Turner both idolized Pinetop Perkins, and both would eventually become rock-solid pianists themselves. Ike's gone now, but Lane upholds the tradition by fronting a contemporary incarnation of Turner's old combo the Kings of Rhythm; an impressively versatile musician, he's played with Robert Nighthawk, Canned Heat, and the Monkees over the past six decades. —BD

3:30 PM Lee Boys See today's Front Porch listings.

Route 66 Roadhouse

12:30 PM Charles "Wsir" Johnson

2:30 PM Eden & John's East River String Band with special guests Jerron "Blind Boy" Paxton and Dom Flemons

4:30 PM Record Collecting Through the Ages

6:30 PM East of Edens Soul Express

Mississippi Juke Joint

12:30 PM Ben Payton

2 PM Big Jack Johnson Big Jack Johnson's barbed-wire guitar and gruff, fiery vocals can raise goose bumps even on a sweltering afternoon. One of many important bluesmen to come out of Clarksdale, Mississippi, Johnson has deep-down Delta intensity in his bones; in 1962 he joined Frank Frost's rough-and-tumble trio the Nighthawks (later rechristened the Jelly Roll Kings), the last notable blues band to record for Sun. He ventured out on his own in the 80s, combining the occasional tinge of country with blistering solos road tested in juke joints and stamped with the imprint of Albert and B.B. King—a striking contrast to his introspective lyrics on intriguing tunes like "Daddy, When Is Mama Comin' Home?" and "We Got to Stop This Killin'." Johnson also shares the bill with David "Honeyboy" Edwards, John Primer, and many others at an Earwig Records 30th-anniversary celebration at 8 PM on Friday, June 12, at SPACE in Evanston. —BD

3:30 PM David "Honeyboy" Edwards with Devil in a Woodpile

5 PM Grady Champion Born in 1969, Mississippi-based vocalist and harpist Grady Champion is a youngster by blues standards, but he approaches the music like a seasoned veteran. On his latest album, the self-released Back in Mississippi Live at the 930 Blues Cafe, he ranges from in-the-pocket funk ("1-800-Blu-Love") to folksy crooning ("Brother, Brother"), and no matter what the setting he conveys deep emotion without descending into cheap-thrills pandering. —DW

6:30 PM Blues Festival Pro Blues Jam hosted by Gary Gand

Petrillo Music Shell

5 PM Johnny Drummer & the Starlighters Multi-instrumentalist Thessex Johns, aka Johnny Drummer, has been a journeyman on the south side for decades. In recent years he's earned wider recognition with a series of CDs on Earwig, which give you a good idea what to expect from his live shows: witty lyrics, delivered in a good-natured but sometimes uncertain baritone holler; jaunty, shuffle-based rhythms with occasional side trips into medium-boil funk; and solid musicianship from everyone concerned. —DW

6:10 PM Big Jack Johnson & the Oilers See today's Mississippi Juke Joint listings.

7:20 PM Jeremy Spencer In the late 60s, during his time in the British-blues-band incarnation of Fleetwood Mac, slide guitarist Jeremy Spencer displayed a profound stylistic debt to Elmore James—but then he left the Mac at the dawn of the 70s to join an obscure and controversial religious sect (some would say cult) and fell off the radar for decades. Since 2005 he's been mounting a comeback, which has included a 2006 CD for Blind Pig; his band tonight includes guitarist Dave Herrero and drummer Marty Binder. Spencer also headlines an 8 PM show at Reggie's Music Joint on Friday, June 12. —BD

8:30 PM Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings You can't mess with Sharon Jones's cred. Born in Georgia and raised in Brooklyn (with frequent trips back south), she sang in church as a girl and then later worked the chitlin' circuit alongside hard-soul vocalist Lee Fields. Her gospel-trained, road-toughened pipes can cover the entire emotional spectrum of soul—spiritual and erotic longing, hard-won joy, corrosive angst—and bring it all to life with riveting immediacy. But for all her fire and conviction, she seems to handle the material with a bit of revivalist's distance. Her records sound like "safe" black music for folks who want authenticity without leaving their comfort zones—I'm put in mind of mid-20th-century jazz purists who idolized swing-era standard-bearers as a way of keeping the hegemony-threatening musical and cultural innovations of bebop at arm's length. —DW

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