Kenny Neal's style has a taproot in the sparse, deeply emotional "swamp blues" of his native southern Louisiana: Baton Rouge legend Slim Harpo gave him his first harmonica, and Harpo's guitarist Rudolph Richard was an early fretboard influence. But these days Neal mostly grafts that sound to funk, blues rock, and occasional down-home acoustic musing. His electric leads combine a precise attack with an aggressive tone, and his knack for stretching a melody without rendering it incoherent gives his playing a focused intensity absent from the slash-and-burn hysterics favored by many of his contemporaries. His harp work retains the tubular quaver of his mentor Harpo, although he's also capable of a full-bodied Chicago warble. And when Neal wraps his deep, nuanced voice around a grim fable (such as the acoustic "Morning After," from 1991's Walking on Fire, on Alligator) or a tale of domestic heartbreak ("The Son I Never Knew," from 1989's Devil Child), he sounds like the soul of world-weary resignation; on a rollicking anthem like "Believe in Yourself" (on 1994's Hoodoo Moon), he radiates hard-won faith. His latest CD, Blues Fallin' Down Like Rain (Telarc), consists largely of covers; here's hoping his performance will draw at least as heavily on his wealth of originals. Friday, 10 PM, Beale Street Blues Cafe, 1550 N. Rand, Palatine; 847-776-9850. DAVID WHITEIS
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Joseph Rosen.