Blues harpist Grady Champion was born in Mississippi, the youngest of his father's 28 children. He cites Rice Miller (Sonny Boy Williamson II) as his primary influence, though at 29 he isn't even old enough to have seen his hero buried--in fact, his harp's widemouthed sound owes more to James Cotton, who learned at Miller's feet. On Champion's Shanachie debut, Payin' for My Sins, he ranges far afield from Miller's juke-joint blues, tackling everything from churchy soul ("Good as New") to hot-blooded blues rock ("My Rooster Is King") to cornball country balladry ("Roberta"). He plays mostly in overdrive, sometimes squealing on the edge of dissonance, but he's capable of subtle gestures--the tubular swoops and bends on "Rooster," for instance, or the incongruously jaunty warbles he inserts into "Troubled Mind." His greatest strength is his voice, a tough, raspy mix of youthful swagger and wounded weariness. On "Good as New" he sounds nearly as tormented as James Carr, able to find solace only in his music ("When all my healing's through / Don't you know I'll look back and / I'll sit down and I'll write one more blues"). And his steely intensity on "You Got Some Explaining to Do" adds real threat to lyrics that could've seemed playful ("Now don't you hustle a hustler / 'Cause that's real dumb / And guaranteed not to be no fun"). Champion's not batting a thousand yet: the title tune meanders sluggishly, and his version of Miller's classic "Don't Start Me to Talkin'" submerges the sly lyrics in rock bombast. But the disc's weaknesses are redeemed by its powerful centerpiece: a six-minute rendition of "Goin' Down Slow," St. Louis Jimmy Oden's portrait of a hell-raiser in decline; Champion makes the protagonist a young cousin dying of AIDS. He's one of the most eloquent blues songwriters coming up today, making music that combines emotional depth and unrestrained celebration. Tuesday, 9:30 PM, Buddy Guy's Legends, 754 S. Wabash; 312-427-0333. DAVID WHITEIS
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Stephen Hayford.