Blues harpist Billy Branch has always been mindful of his role as a keeper of the flame. He can evoke the better part of the Chicago harmonica canon in a single solo: He might start with a few of John Lee Williamson's rollicking arpeggios, then segue into burnished Little Walter-style jazz licks, tempered by Big Walter's bittersweet thoughtfulness and ornamented here and there with a piercing Jimmy Reed shriek or one of Rice Miller's antic triplet runs. And he'll often finish with a display of the multioctave acrobatics and tonal manipulation pioneered by Carey Bell and pursued today by Sugar Blue. He's still so humbly respectful of his elders that a few years ago, when he recorded a tribute to his mentors James Cotton and the late Junior Wells for the Alligator anthology Harp Attack!, he called it "New Kid on the Block." But just as important as Branch's reverence for tradition is his keen desire to get through to younger listeners, who might not even know the old masters' names. So while his latest disc, Satisfy Me, nods to history with a cover of Little Walter's "One More Chance With You" that's faithful right down to the tubular harp tone, it also makes a play for the ears of the next generation with high-voltage rockers like "Highway Blues" and "Pay or Stay." The aggressive numbers show off Branch's range especially well--even at its harshest, his tone stays supple enough to convey emotional depth and vulnerability. He pushes the envelope even further with a Latin-tinged version of Bill Withers's "Kissin' My Love," fitting his squawks and screams so snugly to the sensual rhythms that it sounds like the beat itself is gasping. Saturday, 9 PM, Beale Street Blues Cafe, 1550 N. Rand, Palatine; 847-776-9850. Next Friday and Saturday, May 7 and 8, 9:30 PM, Kingston Mines, 2548 N. Halsted; 773-477-4646. Billy Branch also plays with his band, Sons of Blues, every Monday at 9 PM at Artis's, 1249 E. 87th; 773-734-0491. DAVID WHITEIS
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/James Fraher.