A lot of purists were taken aback by Guitar Shorty's performance at this year's Chicago Blues Festival; the 58-year-old played a set that ranged from high-velocity boogies to a hyperextended version of Jimi Hendrix's "Hey Joe," spewing out ear-splitting, edge-of-madness pyrotechnics and throwing himself into a climactic series of somersaults and flips without missing a note. But the traditionalists who argue that clowning around distracts Shorty from his own music, or that his exaggerated showmanship makes him less "authentic," fail to appreciate that Shorty is carrying on a tradition--a tradition of carrying on. He's been incorporating acrobatics into his act since the late 50s, and as a guitarist he's always walked the line between genius and excess--both Buddy Guy and Hendrix are said to have been influenced by his onstage flamboyance and the rococo exuberance of his fretboard style. Until recently, Shorty was something of a cult figure, but his 1989 LP On the Rampage (Olive Branch) and his recent output on Black Top have earned him a reputation with mainstream audiences. On Roll Over, Baby, his latest Black Top release, he continues to torture B.B.-style leads into tonal explosions; his vocals, nuanced and supple yet gritty with passion, sound at home with everything from deep-blues storytelling ("You're a Troublemaker") through hard-rock testifying ("Hey Joe") to funky, front-porch celebrating ("The Porkchop Song"). But to really know the essence of Shorty you need to see him live, where he abandons the last traces of restraint and roars headlong from one end of the blues to the other. Friday, 10 PM, Beale Street Blues Cafe, 1550 N. Rand, Palatine; 847-776-9850. Saturday, 10 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 by Michael Jackson.