Michelle Willson started singing professionally in the 70s, while still in her teens, and since then she's evolved from jump-blues dilettante to seasoned cabaret chanteuse. In some ways she's a work in progress even now: though her husky, been-around-the-block barfly's croon helps her sound simultaneously jaded and vulnerable on ballads, on up-tempo numbers her weakness for bombast sometimes flattens that emotional depth. But she seems determined to continue building up her chops and expanding her stylistic range, and on her latest, the 1999 disc Tryin' to Make a Little Love (Bullseye Blues), she's chosen some first-rate material to do it with. On "Life Rolls On," a country-gospel tune from Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham, Willson communicates both fatalism and hope; on "Responsibility," a meditative funk ballad by Mac "Dr. John" Rebennack and Doc Pomus, her voice climbs from a gritty purr into a majestic wail. Even on fluffier fare--such as the bossa nova bauble "Corazon de Hielo" and the jivey "Ay la Bas," an obscure Dolly Cooper title--her leathery timbre and fluid phrasing create surprisingly complex textures. (Unfortunately, on New Orleans-style workouts like the title tune and "I Would Rather Do Without It," she sings in a coarse holler that's a bit too stiff.) The best track on the album is the gospel lament "Someday": she ascends from wrenching pathos into redemptive glory in a full-bodied alto reminiscent of Queen Mahalia herself. Willson's spirited earthiness infuses her singing with restlessness, as if she's champing at the bit, eager to move on to the next challenge. Her press material claims that Tryin' to Make a Little Love "really displays what Michelle can do," but I wouldn't be surprised if that record turned out to be just the beginning. Saturday, 9:30 PM, Famous Dave's, 739 N. Clark; 312-266-2400. DAVID WHITEIS
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Michelle Willson photo by Jean Hangarter.