Michelle Willson | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

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Michelle Willson

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MICHELLE WILLSON

Michelle Willson's voice sounded a bit too wounded and worldly for the jump 'n' jive boilerplate of Evil Gal Blues and So Emotional, her mid-90s releases on Bullseye Blues. But with her latest Bullseye disc, Tryin' to Make a Little Love, the Bostonian finds a life after swing, showcasing originals and contributions from some of the classiest pop songwriters around, including Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham (the lovely country-gospel "Life Rolls On"), and Mac Rebennack and the late Doc Pomus (the brooding funk ballad "Responsibility"). Willson's really more a cabaret entertainer than a blues singer, and blues fans may be put off by her theatricality. On the title tune, a buoyant New Orleans-flavored romp, her coarse croon sounds labored, neither subtle enough to be coy nor outrageous enough to be bawdy. Worse, her lyrics for "Shifting Sand," sincere as they are, struggle beneath a painful therapeutic earnestness that fights with the tune's light-footed groove. But on the gospel lament "Someday" Willson evokes both suffering and the strength to endure it, inserting an elegant nod to Bobby "Blue" Bland's "I'll Take Care of You" along the way, and her gritty-sweet timbre and limber phrasing bring surprising emotional depth to the wafting bossa nova of "Corazon de Hielo." And she spits out Johnny Otis's "In the Driver's Seat" with swaggering fearlessness--proving that she can find substance where others might see only novelty. Saturday, 8:30 PM, Famous Dave's, 739 N. Clark; 312-266-2400. Sunday, 4:45 PM (at the 18th annual American Music Festival), FitzGerald's, 6615 Roosevelt, Berwyn; 708-788-2118. DAVID WHITEIS

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jean Hangarter.

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