"No Different Than a Juke House..." | Music Review | Chicago Reader

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"No Different Than a Juke House..."

Rooster Blues on CD

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Magic Slim and the Teardrops, Grand Slam (1982). One of Chicago's most tightly wound barroom-boogie outfits when they first came to Rooster Blues in the early 80s, guitarist Magic Slim and his Teardrops were virtually unknown among white listeners. On up-tempo boogies and down-and-dirty slow blues alike, Slim's extended phrases, string shivers, upwardly spiraling filigrees, and piercing single-note outbursts cut a swath through the band's deep-pocketed comping. Despite their smooth professionalism, the music feels rough as a backstreet alley; you can almost smell the cigar smoke and taste the boiled pig-ear sandwiches at Florence's Lounge, the club at 55th and Shields that was Slim's home base at the time.

Super Chikan, Blues Come Home to Roost (1997). James "Super Chikan" Johnson, a barnyard philosopher from Darling, Mississippi, dispenses backwoods ribaldry, folk wisdom, and unvarnished guitar and harmonica on this debut release,

tackling everything from stripped-down swamp funk to greasy country boogie. His singing can be uncertain, his laid-back rhythms can grow flaccid, but his individualism and sense of adventure have prompted Blues Review Magazine to anoint him the Captain Beefheart of the Blues.

Eddie C. Campbell, Hopes & Dreams (2000). Campbell's King of the Jungle LP, released on the Mr. Blues label in 1977, was one of Rooster's most celebrated reissues in 1985, and this new set is similarly eccentric and inspired. He eases into a Brook Benton croon on "Did I Hurt You?," his solos squirming and squealing like wild tracer bullets. The grinding blues-funk workout "Geese in the Ninny Bow (Hey!)" is heated to a boil by chopping horns as Campbell hurls double entendres over the top ("Geese in the ninny bow won't fly over / Woman in the bed and won't turn over / Look for somethin', know it ain't there / Get back now 'fore you lose your hair..."). Musically this is one of the label's more progressive releases, with stratospheric solos from trumpeter Lester "Duck" Warner and saxist Kenny Glover alongside the Chicago blues harmonica of Billy Boy Arnold. Yet Campbell is clearly more comfortable playing closer to home: "Cougar" bristles with west-side exuberance, its rhythm reminiscent of Freddie King's "San-Ho-Zay."

Jerry Ricks, Many Miles of Blues (2000). A dedicated acoustic revivalist, Ricks has spent most of his career performing for white coffeehouse and festival audiences; he lived, toured, and recorded in Europe for years before returning to the U.S. in the early 90s and hooking up with Rooster Blues. Some retro-country blues artists suffer from a scholarly detachment or meander through the Museum of Classic Riffs; despite his flawless technique and compendious knowledge of the music, Ricks brings to his playing a passion and affirmation that make it feel contemporary, whether he's breathing new life into a chestnut like Buddy Moss's chilling "Undertaker Blues" or dexterously picking his original "Missouri River Blues."

Lonnie Shields, Midnight Delight (2000). On Portrait (1992), Lonnie Shields fused Delta blues with Memphis soul, a raw horn section booting out crude alley-funk patterns behind his supple string bending. Shields began work on the follow-up before Portrait had even been released, but personal uncertainty, seductive offers from an overseas label, and the financial fragility of the Rooster Blues operation delayed Midnight Delight until the end of the decade. Rooster brought in some of the best session men available, including organist Charles Hodges from the fabled Hi Records rhythm section, guitarist Johnny Rawls, guitarist-keyboardist L.C. Luckett, and Al Green's Gold City Horns. The pieces fall together on the title track, the autobiographical "Arkansas Is My Home (No. 2)," the winning instrumental "DeSoto Bridge," and the lascivious funk/ blues anthem "I'm Bad," with Shields's aggressive chording riding the punchy horns and Hodges's broad, burbling organ. Unfortunately, one senses a lack of direction in the studio: even on "I'm Bad," the singer's voice cracks embarrassingly, and elsewhere the rhythm section sounds sketchy and tame.

Various Artists, And This Is Maxwell Street (2000). Leased from the Japanese P-Vine label, this is the first authorized U.S. release of recordings made in 1964 in conjunction with Mike Shea's internationally acclaimed documentary on Maxwell Street, And This Is Free. Some of the tracks, featuring guitarist-vocalist Robert Nighthawk, surfaced in 1980 on the album Robert Nighthawk: Live on Maxwell Street 1964 (Rounder), dubbed from second-generation analog tapes. The CD set will be digitally remixed and fully annotated with new information that should spark lively debate and discussion among blues geeks: a medley of "Red Top" and Charlie Parker's "Ornithology" credited to Nighthawk on the Rounder release is now credited to guitarist Little Arthur King, and Rooster Blues publicity suggests that on "Peter Gunn Jam" and "Back Off Jam" by the Nighthawk band, the lead guitarist is not Nighthawk as previously credited but a young Mike Bloomfield.

Various artists, Rooster Blues Records: 1980-2000 (2000). This 19-track sampler ranges from the label's early years (Magic Slim covering Hound Dog Taylor's "Give Me Back My Wig," "Rollin' and Tumblin'" by Carey and Lurrie Bell) to more recent fare (Super Chikan's "Down in the Delta"). Some of the brightest moments come from the most obscure artists:

"I Can't Leave You Alone" by newcomer D.C. Bellamy. If Bellamy's appearance at the Chicago Blues Festival this summer is any indication, he could be the label's biggest discovery since Magic Slim. He's a raucous showman whose high-decibel guitar attack sounds tailor-made for the roadhouse warrior circuit, yet this track is built on solid Mississippi-to-Chicago harmonic and rhythmic patterns that should also please more traditional listeners. His debut album on Rooster Blues is scheduled for release this fall.

"Walkin' and Cryin' the Blues" by Louisville bluesman Foree "Guitar" Wells. His career dated back to the 50s, when he did session work for the Sun label; when he died in 1997, he had just completed It's a New Day, Brother!, his first and only full-length album, for Rooster. Wells's guitar playing suggests Freddie King or Carlos Santana (the melody itself recalls "All Along the Watchtower"), but his unnuanced baritone and impressionistic lyrics about death, betrayal, and black magic are solidly rooted in blues tradition.

"Eyesight to the Blind," a squalling cover of the Sonny Boy Williamson tune by Chicago-based harpist Good Rockin' Charles (Charles Edwards), who died in 1989. Edwards is probably still best known among historians as the guy who didn't show up: after he blew off a session with Jimmy Rogers at Chess Records in 1956, Big Walter Horton stepped in and laid down one of the great harmonica solos in recorded blues on "Walkin' by Myself." In 1975 aficionado Steve Wisner tracked Edwards down in Chicago and recorded the album Good Rockin' Charles for his Mr. Blues label. Rooster eventually acquired the master tapes for that collector's item, including this track; Edwards provides an ebullient vocal and an uncanny re-creation of Williamson's harp style.

"How Much More/Mama Talk to Your Daughter," a track from the Robert "Bilbo" Walker album Promised Land (1993). Walker, a free spirit who used to play on Maxwell Street, was inspired by the unstructured environment at Rooster sessions and brought a whiff of anarchy with his near manic showmanship and his tonally aggressive, melodically primitive guitar. This track fuses two sprightly J.B. Lenoir shuffles into a back-alley raunch fest, Walker banging out paleolithic boogie patterns and bawling the lyrics in a cracked tenor (writes Rooster Blues founder Jim O'Neal in the notes, "the studio to him was no different than a juke house").

--David Whiteis

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