Calvin Cooke | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

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Calvin Cooke

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Though Calvin Cooke has been a master of both traditional lap steel and ten-string pedal steel guitars for decades, for many he's a recent discovery; the Detroit-based musician has become revered by the new generation of "sacred steel" artists who emerged on the blues and jam-band circuits in the late 90s. The acclaim he's received is due in part to his willingness to embrace a variety of sounds, from understated folk to roadhouse raunch; on his sole CD, Heaven (Dare), released in 2003, his chord runs can evoke Wes Montgomery or the acid-tinged noodlings of "Eight Miles High"-era Byrds. His smooth leads often dissolve into abstract wailing, and he sings in a declamatory baritone shout, with lyrics that straddle the fence between the sacred and the secular. But only occasionally does Cooke perform like somebody's soul is at stake. On "Look at the People" the imagery of his lyrics becomes uncompromisingly dire--"You can't slip, you can't slide, you got to be tried," he insists--and he finally gives his steel guitar the voicelike timbre that put the sacred steel style on the map: it scolds, sings with angelic reverence, and screams like a penitent possessed by the Holy Spirit. Joel Paterson's Blues Roundup opens. Sat 2/19, 9:30 PM, Buddy Guy's Legends, 754 S. Wabash, 312-427-0333, $15.

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