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Guitarist Ronnie Baker Brooks balances his legacy with his drive to innovate

His father, the late Lonnie Brooks, appears on the new Times Have Changed—alongside Memphis rapper Al Kapone.

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Ronnie Baker Brooks (right) and Eddy “the Chief” Clearwater at Pritzker Pavilion in 2012 for a Kennedy Center Honors send-off for Buddy Guy - SCOTT OLSON/GETTY IMAGES
  • Scott Olson/Getty Images
  • Ronnie Baker Brooks (right) and Eddy “the Chief” Clearwater at Pritzker Pavilion in 2012 for a Kennedy Center Honors send-off for Buddy Guy

In January guitarist Ronnie Baker Brooks released his first album in more than ten years, Times Have Changed (Provogue), and the rumination on progress and decay in its title track might make Brooks sound like an old fogey if it weren't for the conclusion he reaches ("Nothing remains the same, today it's a brand-new game") and the spiky rapping of Memphis MC Al Kapone. "Ain't nothing wrong with going back to the basics," Kapone says in the song's outro, "and some things change for the better too. . . . Live, learn, and enjoy my evolution rule."

Kapone's lyrics could easily double as a manifesto for Baker Brooks himself. He's an innovative player who's dedicated his career to furthering the legacy of his father, Chicago bluesman Lonnie Brooks, who died in April. Lonnie's calling card in his latter days was straight-ahead postwar Chicago blues, and Baker Brooks colors that style with influences from rock, pop, and (more recently) contemporary R&B and hip-hop. Born in Chicago in 1967, Ronnie picked up the guitar early and started performing on weekends with Lonnie's group when he was in high school. After graduating he became his dad's bandleader, a job he held until 1998, when he released his debut solo album, Golddigger, on his own Watchdog label.

Some fans complained about what they saw as Golddigger's assault on Chicago blues tradition and, by association, the Brooks musical legacy—though perhaps they'd forgotten that Lonnie Brooks, a Louisiana native, had also worked in zydeco, swamp pop, country, and mainstream soul. Ronnie and his heavily amplified rhythm section juiced up standard-issue shuffles and triple-feel ballads with blues-rock bombast and post-James Brown funk; his guitar playing, enhanced with fuzz and wah-wah, sometimes exploded with an acrobatic fury worthy of Hendrix. His tough, streetsy vocals also betrayed the influence of postmodern funk artists such as Rick James and late-career Johnny "Guitar" Watson, another bluesman whose departure from tradition gave purists fits. But Golddigger also paid homage to Baker Brooks's roots: the anthemic "Make These Blues Survive," for instance, featured a characteristically crisp and resonant guitar solo from Lonnie Brooks, who has appeared at least once on every album Ronnie has released under his own name.

On 2001's Take Me Witcha, Baker Brooks moved even further toward rock and blues-rock—with notable exceptions such as the folky pop ballad "I Laugh to Keep From Cryin'," where Lonnie stepped in to deliver some of the most wracked, emotionally intense vocals of his career. Baker Brooks first collaborated with Kapone on the 2006 album The Torch, whose title track is a tribute to his Chicago blues mentors: it enlists Lonnie, Jimmy Johnson, Eddy Clearwater, and Willie Kent as guest vocalists. "We paved the way for you," they sing. "Now it's all up to you—to carry this torch of the blues."

That mission continues to guide Baker Brooks on Times Have Changed, which for all its genre jumping also features canonical soul and R&B songs and guest appearances by such legendary old-school figures as the late Bobby "Blue" Bland, Stax house guitarist Steve Cropper, and Hi Rhythm Section stalwarts Teenie, Leroy, and Charles Hodges. Baker Brooks has earned a reputation for live performances as forward-­looking as his recordings—he usually does his own rapping, for instance—but his musical inheritance makes itself felt in every note. The serpentine, precisely articulated lead-guitar technique he learned from his father remains a bedrock of his style, and his stage show is one of the most emotionally direct and uncompromising in contemporary blues. Like Janus, he can simultaneously look back to the music's past and forward to its future.  v

Ronnie Baker Brooks performs Sunday, June 11, at 5 PM at Jay Pritzker Pavilion.

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