On the cover of Born in the Delta, his 1997 release on Telarc, Pinetop Perkins drapes his arms over a toy piano--appropriate, because even though he's 86, he still plays and improvises with the bright-eyed ebullience of a child. Schooled in the jukes around Helena, Arkansas, in the 40s, Perkins joined Muddy Waters in 1969 and stayed with him until 1980, when he and his bandmates struck out on their own as the Legendary Blues Band. Only in recent years has he really blossomed as a soloist, but in the process he's rediscovered a broad repertoire that might surprise many of his younger fans. On Born in the Delta he rides the bucking jump-blues rhythm of "For You My Love" with the same sureness he brings to deep-pocket Delta shuffles; he prods and pulls at the hoary standard "Look on Yonder Wall" until it transmogrifies into an entirely new composition. "Song for Sunnyland Slim," on Perkins's 1998 album Down in Mississippi, evokes the late pianist's percussive keyboard style, but Perkins puts his own spin on it, laying fleet-fingered arpeggios over the easy-rolling bass patterns; he embellishes his lurching version of "Just a Little Bit" with understated melodic colors and rhythmic textures. Unfortunately he couldn't work the same magic on Legends, a '98 pairing with guitarist Hubert Sumlin that was stuffed with overcooked chestnuts like "Hoochie Coochie Man" and "Got My Mojo Working." But in performance Perkins is as irrepressible as ever, firing off length-of-the-keyboard cascades between phrases and peppering his vocals with ribald asides--and the rhapsodic joy he emanates when he hits on something especially arresting is as inspiring as the music itself. Friday and Saturday, 9:30 PM, Rosa's Lounge, 3420 W. Armitage; 773-342-0452. DAVID WHITEIS
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/James Fraher.