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Smooth grit

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Despite the much-vaunted universality of blues expression, the grafting of disparate blues styles into a coherent whole can be a tricky business. In the prewar Chicago days of Lester Melrose's Bluebird label, the work of artists like Memphis Minnie and Big Bill Broonzy was sometimes diluted by producers attempting to enhance their sounds with trumpets and clarinets. In Memphis during the late 40s, the uneasy equilibrium between Howlin' Wolf's raw power and the developing sophistication of sidemen like Junior Parker and Matt "Guitar" Murphy resulted in a sometimes spellbinding, sometimes nearly chaotic mix.

Today, a band like Big Daddy Kinsey and the Kinsey Report, with Big Daddy's traditional Chicago slide guitar and vocals laid over the explosive explorations of his forward-looking sons, illustrates the musical tension that can develop when players of different generations attempt to forge a neutral turf. When it works, it's brilliant. When it doesn't, it signifies that even skillful musicianship can be insufficient to bridge the gap between musical languages that have grown too far apart for easy communication.

One might expect a band like Anson Funderburgh and the Rockets, which features harmonica player Sam Myers to demonstrate problems such as this. Funderburgh and his band play hip Texas-style shuffle blues from the mold of that joyous aggregation of brilliant young guitarists--Johnny "Guitar" Watson, Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, and other musical descendants of T-Bone Walker--who played and developed in the thriving postwar Houston scene. They also throw in a good dash of rockabilly exuberance. Myers, on the other hand, is a straight-ahead Mississippi harmonica man and blues shouter who played drums and occasional harp behind Elmore James in Chicago in the mid-50s and has been a stalwart of the blues scene in the Jackson, Mississippi, area for over 30 years. He is best known for his 1957 recording (on the Ace label in Jackson) of "Sleeping in the Ground," which was adapted by Blind Faith in 1969.

Last Saturday, the band brought their unique blend of Mississippi grit and Texas smoothness to a packed and sweaty house at B.L.U.E.S. Etcetera. Visually, at least, the incongruity of the matchup was evident as soon as they took the stage. The easygoing flamboyance of Funderburgh and his crew, bubbling over with the cocksure exuberance of young musicians out to conquer the world, stood in marked contrast to the stolid stage demeanor of Myers, who turns 54 in February and is nearly blind. He stalked onto the bandstand with stiff-legged uncertainty, wrapped in an ill-fitting suit despite the heat and unable to establish eye contact with the audience. One couldn't ask for a more graphic representation of the oft-cited discrepancy between the older generation of bluesmen and their eager young heirs apparent.

From the first note, however, all misgivings were dispelled. The Rockets exploded into a rollicking boogie, immediately establishing their mastery of the jaunty, upbeat-accented shuffle that characterizes much of the postwar Texas sound. They provided a propulsive kick to Funderburgh's crisply articulated leads. It's always a treat to hear young musicians who can play with energetic abandon and remain tasteful; these men showed immediately that it's one of their strongest points.

Funderburgh's attack is both clean and fluid, and he avoids the common mistake of ignoring or fighting the rhythm as he elaborates upon it. His solos flow effortlessly over, under, and around the beat laid down by drummer Danny Cochran and bassist Mike Judge, goosed by the sure-handed comping of Matt McCabe on piano. It's especially notable that Judge plays a stand-up bass. Few other contemporary blues or blues-related bands incorporate the acoustic bass in their regular working lineup; the Mighty Flyers, Paladin, and the William Clarke Band just about exhaust the list.

Myers, meanwhile, blows full, uncluttered phrases in a raucous tone, incorporating the usual Little Walter/Rice Miller influences and given added impetus by the driving shuffle laid down by the band. Drummer Cochran pushes a mite too hard on occasion, but in general the young Rockets provide Myers with just the right combination of energy and space in which to build his solos. Although Myers's voice strains somewhat on the high notes, he's a fine singer in the rough-edge Mississippi style. He consistently attains that elusive combination of emotional intensity and conversational offhandedness that characterizes the vocal delivery of many traditional blues singers, including early Muddy Waters.

Perhaps the most appealing thing about this aggregation, though, is their willingness to expand their repertoire beyond the usual contemporary blues canon. Only a few of the songs at B.L.U.E.S. Etcetera ("You Told Me Baby," "Hide Away," and "Everything Gonna Be All Right") were what one might consider standards, at least by Chicago listeners. The rest of the set consisted of originals and covers of lesser-known recordings, overlooked gems by the likes of Chuck Berry ("Let It Rock") or B.B. King ("Pawnbroker," "Beautician Blues").

Mercy Dee Walton's "One-Room Country Shack" was given an especially distinctive reading by Myers; in contrast, for example, to the desolate weariness of Chicago pianist Johnny "Big Moose" Walker's interpretation of the tune on his 1984 Red Beans recording, Myers almost crooned the lyrics. McCabe rolled out shimmering treble flurries behind Myers before finally cascading down the keyboard and leading the band into a romping boogie shuffle that gave Funderburgh the chance to construct his most impressive solo of the evening.

Funderburgh started out sparse, firing sharp musical sparks into the empty spaces provided by the rhythm section. Slowly he built into an aggressive finale that made clear the influence of Freddie King, especially in the harsh chords he used to complement the fleet picking of his leads. Throughout the evening, Funderburgh demonstrated an uncanny ability to come up with solos that sounded both thoroughly spontaneous and unarguably right, as if each note were the only possible one that could be used in its space. Such a fusion of exploratory flair and improvisational logic is rare even among seasoned guitarists (one thinks of Chicagoan Byther Smith's Razor Records LP a few years back), let alone a relatively young man like Funderburgh.

A band truly shows its mettle when confronted with a challenge. The band's performance of Chuck Berry's "Let It Rock" was one of the few times the incipient stylistic tension between Myers and the others was in danger of erupting; Myers's dark Mississippi shout lacks the brash suppleness that's usually necessary to put across high-octane rock and roll. Funderburgh and the Rockets, though, pushed him along with joyful abandon (most notably the ivory-splintering piano pounding), his growling shout adding an element of worldliness to the youthful vision of Berry's lyrics.

Such unself-conscious ability to let the eloquence of the music speak for itself--through all the stylistic shadings and genres represented--was the key to the evening's success. Even the hybrid mix of two separate Earl King numbers ("Darling Honey Angel Child" and "Let the Good Times Roll") as one song came off as a playful elaboration upon beloved themes rather than an irreverent trashing of another artist's legacy. The evening's other tribute to New Orleans R & B, Eddie Bo's "I'll Keep On Trying," was delivered in the classic, gently rolling Crescent City ballad style, with trademark piano triplets segueing into a wide-chording solo from McCabe. The song could easily have degenerated into a museum piece, but the musicians' obvious enthusiasm and respect for the style kept it fresh.

It's this respect, purveyed with a rollicking sense of fun, that makes the band's happy mix such a satisfying experience. Myers plays with the straight-ahead dedication of the traditional Mississippi bluesman while the Rockets' happy-go-lucky exuberance enhances, rather than detracts from, his emotional intensity. It demonstrates what can happen when musicians remember that good times and good ideas don't have to be mutually exclusive; Funderburgh and the Rockets come to party, but they don't leave their brains or their musical seriousness at the door.

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

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