Pianist Barrelhouse Chuck learned at the feet of greats--Sunnyland Slim, Little Brother Montgomery, Detroit Junior--and his earnest reverence for his teachers' music has tempted critics to dismiss him as a mere acolyte. But Chuck's 1999 debut, Salute to Sunnyland Slim (Blue Loon), proves he's developed a style that, if not entirely his own, is definitely greater than the sum of its parts. His solo on the album's opener, "On the House," kicks off with Sunnyland's trademark outro over driving boogie bass, as though the master had just wrapped up a solo of his own, but then Chuck rolls through a few ragtime flourishes and ascends into wide-open, upper-register R & B fusillades. On "Pinetops Blues" he bases his improvisation on some of Sunnyland's best-known rhythms, but burrows into the song's harmonic content to extract a novel, textured melody. As a vocalist Chuck still makes the occasional misstep--on "Cool Disposition," for instance, he unwisely attempts Rice Miller's inimitable blend of irony and aggression--but he's outgrowing the notion that, without a southern upbringing or a childhood in a black gospel church, his only option is to adopt the same mannered coarseness that afflicts so many other younger blues singers. On Sunnyland's "Going Back to Memphis" he doesn't even try to duplicate the original's searing vocals, instead intoning the verses in a breathy baritone croon; what was a fit of gotta-quit-this-town frenzy becomes a brooding meditation on loss and renewal. For this gig Barrelhouse Chuck will be joined by guitarist Billy Flynn and harpist Todd Levine, both of whom grace his record with elegant updates of the classic postwar Chicago style; the rhythm section will consist of John Carpenter, one of several drummers on the disc, and longtime Sunnyland Slim bassist Bob Stroger. Friday, 9:30 PM, Rosa's Lounge, 3420 W. Armitage; 773-342-0452. David Whiteis
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/James Fraher.