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Hands Across the Water

Ben Ruth's 40 years too late for the British Invasion, but that's not stopping him.

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One Saturday night in April at Katerina's on Irving Park, the rosy face of a half-drunk girl in a red baby T and rhinestone choker hovered inches from the kicking feet of Ben Ruth, front man for the blues combo Off the Hook. Ruth couldn't see anything, having rolled his eyes back in his head. But the girl, whose table he'd jumped on, just yanked her cocktail to safety and leaned in closer as he brought a harmonica solo to a climax, scuffing at the polished wood with a black buckle shoe.

Ruth balled his harmonica hand into a fist and let it fall by his side as he screeched into the mike in his other hook. "Some folks may hire a private eye, some folks may become stalkers, but not me, because I know that train's a-coming!" Then he began to wail: "Have you ever been a fool for love?!"

The patrons of the candlelit north-side club, sitting around under vintage movie posters, giggled nervously the first few times Ruth went into his conniption routine. Even guitarist George Nievis, an army vet who'd waited till his kids were through college to start his musical career, shook his head and smiled. But it wasn't long before the whole band was het up and the listeners were full of booze, and dancers spun onto the floor as most of the crowd clapped along.

Ruth's chambray shirt was still tucked into his silver-sheened jeans when he shot off the stage and ordered a postshow beer. When he's singing, it might not be your first guess, but his current day job is troubleshooting the computer system at a local hospital. It pays OK, he says, and it had better. Chicago hasn't yet paid off in the other ways he'd hoped.

Ruth, a native of Lancaster, England, came to the States in 1992 because he'd had it with England: "I couldn't get a job, I couldn't get laid, couldn't get in a band, and the weather was miserable." He'd been a fan of American pop and roots music since he heard "Rock Around the Clock" for the first time. "I was on the school bully-bus at the age of 12," he says. That was 1978--only 15 years too late for the British Invasion.

When Ruth grew up, he trained to be a scientist. But after getting his undergrad degree in ecology at Lancaster University, he found Thatcherian policies had made nonacademic jobs in his field scarce--the funding wasn't there. He did postgrad work at King's College in London, but says a theory he'd developed--what he calls "a scientific, as opposed to creationist, reevaluation of neo-Darwinism"--was so controversial he couldn't get grants for his research.

What's more, he realized that while he didn't absolutely need his youth to study science, one's years of rockin' like a crack monkey are limited: "Play while you're young, solve the problems of contemporary evolutionary theory when you can't leap around anymore." So he left England, enrolling in a master's program in biology at Penn State University--but only, he says, to get a visa that would last longer than three months. (He now has a green card based on a National Interest Waiver, earned with a stint managing a Chicago environmental laboratory charged with getting the lead-based paint and asbestos out of the public schools.) After getting his degree, he drank away the last of his student funds and hitchhiked to Chicago with $90 in his pocket.

With no car and no idea where to go, Ruth began his search for American blues compatriots on the north side. He was sorely disappointed by the likes of Blue Chicago. "And Kingston Mines? Aauuuuk!" he says. "I'd always wanted to be in a smoking blues band, one with real balls, not one inane 12-bar shuffle after another. Back in the 50s those real blues bands had energy," he says. "There was nothing as mean and dirty and nasty and aggro as Chicago blues. I hate slow blues bands, and always wanted a band that exploded R & B, like Little Richard."

So Ruth started the Convulsions, a British R & B-style bar band that's reminiscent of the Yardbirds or the Pretty Things. When the band failed to take off locally he decided to give England another shot--and bring along as many overlooked Chicago musicians as he could. In 2001 he founded a musician-exchange program he calls the Chicago Music Explosion, establishing an annual UK touring mini-fest of Chicago artists like singer-songwriter Melissa Rose Ziemer and Pete Special, formerly of Big Twist & the Mellow Fellows. Now the exchange is going in the other direction. This week the UK version of the Convulsions, formed by Ruth last year with three of his Lancaster mates, hits Chicago for the first time. They've got shows scheduled at Wise Fools Pub and Lyons Den, but the one Ruth's most excited about is June 1 at Lee's Unleaded Blues, on the south side.

Ruth learned about south-side blues clubs only five or so years ago, when he was busking in the Jackson Street tunnel. "A watery-eyed black man approached me and said, 'Man, you should be in a band....I manage bands at this club on South Chicago and 71st.'" Lee's Unleaded Blues is so far south on South Chicago it's pretty much CTA-inaccessible. But Ruth's public-schools work had by then paid for a crappy car, so he went to check it out.

With its narrow grim facade, Lee's could be a warehouse but for its cheery painted sign. There's wall-to-wall red carpeting on the floor of the 20-year-old venue, and more tacked above the snaking black-leather bar canopy and in strategic sound-deadening spots around the stage. Owner Stan "Sarge" Davies, a former cop, took over the place two years ago when owners Ray and Leola "Lee" Gray retired.

The first time Ruth set foot in Lee's, the first man he saw onstage was Johnny Drummer. "He had a keyboard around his neck," he says. "I thought, Oh my, this is going to be the cheesiest thing ever. But then he started to play and, you know, goddamn! It was like giving bread to a starving man, or water to a thirsting man, or dry land to a man who doesn't particularly like . . . well, you know. I was so excited that I spoke exactly what was on my mind. And this is the cheesiest thing ever but it was absolutely honest: I took out my harmonica and said, 'I want to testify!'" He joined the jam and let it rip.

Ruth got busy getting to know the south-side scene, dragging as many north-side friends and visitors from England as he could down to Lee's while performing there himself, always as a sit-in guest. "I felt terribly self-conscious being a harmonica-blowing skinny white kid from middle-class English parents going over so well in the south-side clubs," he says. It took him four years to work up the nerve to ask a few "chitlin' circuit" musicians to join a steady project. But then "I just asked, and to my great surprise they just said, 'Sure!'" So last October he formed Off the Hook with south-siders Nievis and Dale Plique (on drums) and ex-Floridian Heather Taggart (on bass). "I guess I'm having to do a similar thing to what Eric Burdon did in 1966 with two groups called the Animals, one in Newcastle, and one in San Francisco," Ruth says. "Only thing is, he was rather famous, of course."

Both Off the Hook and the Chicago-based Convulsions have had trouble getting decent-paying gigs on the north side, Ruth says. Only south-side venues seem willing to cough up what he thinks they're worth, and it's hard to break into the chitlin' circuit. But so far the Chicago Music Explosion has accomplished what he wanted it to: artists he's taken over have used their UK exposure to make contacts and establish their own fan and touring bases overseas--and he says they make between two and four times as much as they do here. Whenever he can afford it, Ruth flies over to play with the UK Convulsions, sometimes with a Chicago player or two in tow.

One Sunday a few weeks after the Katerina's gig, Ruth felt the yen to take in a blues show, so he headed down to Lee's, first stopping to lube up at a friendly little bar on 87th called Artis's Lounge.

At Lee's later, many of the musicians and patrons were dressed to match the red and black decor. People were helping themselves to baitfish and chicken with plenty of hot sauce and bread while waiting for the next set and ogling the dessert--a dense, rich chocolate cake. It was regular Louise Patton's birthday, and her sister had set up the spread. In return people clipped money to the gift tree placed at the head table, which was set parallel to the low, open stage and right up next to it, for a prime view.

As Ruth settled in, Sarge strode over wanting to know if Ruth was going to sit in. Ruth acquiesced, and as the band set up he reminisced about the previous weekend, when he and the Convulsions had played the Burnley Blues Festival in northwest England. "I was sitting on the rafters!" he said. "There were so many young English ladies there, showing all sorts of cleavage, not yet infected by U.S. puritanism, you know. So to impress them I climbed up there and swung the microphone over the rafter, and then caught it. I thought I was so cool, and then I started to sing and nothing happened because it'd come unplugged."

When he went on with Drummer, Ruth left the rafters in peace--he was busy crawling across the head table, giving Patton a birthday serenade. Drummer's cheesy-looking keyboard, which was patched into a Hammond XB2 behind him on the stage, sounded old-fashioned and plenty warm. Ruth and the guitarist followed each other around, playing into each other's faces.

"Sarge has been asking me to sit in every time I come here since we booked the Convulsions show," Ruth said afterward. "He's just like a little kid with my band coming over." Sarge claims the Convulsions will be the first British band to ever play the south side--an exaggeration, but it's apparently the first time for Lee's, and it's certainly a curiosity nowadays. "I just hope we don't suck," said Ruth. "They're really nervous. It's their first gig in the States."

Recently Ruth's gotten closer to Burdon, his British R & B hero, than he'd ever dreamed: in December he was asked to contribute some harp work to a new Animals CD, Instinct. Though Ruth hasn't got a copy yet, the CD was released in mid-May, and the Animals are selling it on their current tour.

Ruth says his hopes about music finally seemed to be gaining on his frustrations: also as of mid-May, Goose Island Brewery had signed on as a sponsor for the next Chicago Music Explosion tour. Plus, the Animals have plans to start a new label, and say they want to keep working with the Convulsions. "We need folks like the Animals who are incredibly supportive and have the connections," he says. "But, you know, how many labels say 'We want to put out your stuff!' and then it never happens? This is all some Merchant of Venice-type bollocks. All these ships are just leaving the port now--everything's just beginning to look interesting."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Joeff Davis.

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