Sonny Rhodes | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader
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Sonny Rhodes, born Clarence E. Smith in Smithville, Texas, in 1940, played guitar and sang on street corners as a kid. In the late 50s, after joining the navy, he moved to California; there he met another native Texan, L.C. "Good Rockin'" Robinson, who taught him the lap steel guitar, the instrument with which he would make his mark. Rhodes has been recording since 1958, but most of his releases were on small labels with poor distribution until 1990, when he signed with the Florida-based King Snake. Then, just as things were finally looking up professionally, he lost two touring vans (and all the gear and possessions inside) to fire and began to suffer from health problems. Rhodes has soldiered on regardless, and he's lost none of his wit, virtuosity, or vocal power. His latest disc, 2001's A Good Day to Play the Blues (Stony Plain), features fare as varied in mood as "Big Bag o' Blues," a rollicking shuffle, and "She's Not Happy Unless She's Sad," a tender portrait of an emotionally damaged lover. He's no slouch on standard guitar--his crisp attack and aggressive, linear melodies recall Texas role models like the late Albert Collins--but his forte is the lap steel. Rhodes can coax either a banshee wail or a saxophone-like croon from the thing, and he fires off writhing single-string passages that sound like a frenzied "amen" choir one minute and the voice of a possessed alter ego the next--on "Monkey See, Monkey Do" the lap steel taunts him with fractured cackles as he tries vainly to resist the temptations of a juke-joint Jezebel. Rhodes expresses deep emotion with craft and nuance, rather than by turning on the heat, and the well-placed spaces in his solos pull you in, making you an active participant in his improvisations as they unfold. Saturday, March 29, 9:30 PM, Buddy Guy's Legends, 754 S. Wabash; 312-427-0333.

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