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Guitarist Vance Kelly was a teenage prodigy on the south-side blues circuit in the early 70s; in 1987 he hooked up with saxophonist and bandleader A.C. Reed, earning his first recognition outside the midwest, and in '92 landed a spot on the roster of Austria's Wolf label, where he remains today. Now 48, he's developed the artistic and emotional maturity to bring depth to the fiery brashness of his youth; despite the precision with which he tosses off intricate filigrees and long exploratory lines, his playing never sounds sterile or perfunctory. And as a singer, he's still self-confident and insouciant, but the sandpapery toughness and resonant power of his voice prevent him from coming off as callow or arrogant. On the ballad "Foxy"--one of several originals on his latest CD, 2000's What Three Old Ladies Can Do--his muscular croon adds a touch of bluesy menace to the protestations of a man determined to win a woman's love. Over the lushly arranged hard-funk groove of "You Are Mine, Now I'm Forever Yours," another original, he proclaims his fidelity with a good-natured machismo that makes matrimony sound as hip as sneaking around used to be; as his guitar solo spirals joyfully heavenward, he occasionally pauses to worry a note or a phrase the way a gospel singer might. Onstage Kelly primarily plays covers, and although his commitment to the music remains solid, he's clearly constrained by the role of human jukebox. He lacks the sense of irony to make a number like "Candy Licker," Marvin Sease's notorious ode to cunnilingus, seem like anything more than a dirty joke, and his trademark trick--stringing together a medley of snippets from other people's hits--soon grows numbing, despite his impressive virtuosity. But Kelly can also breathe life into tired warhorses: he and his Backstreet Blues Band blend their voices on a sublime doo--wop reading of the Bobby Bland favorite "Members Only" and make a full-frontal assault on "Love the One You're With," seasoning Stephen Stills's swirling pop-rock chord progressions with strategically placed blue notes, deep-soul chords, and subliminal funk rhythms. Friday, August 9, 10 PM, Reservation Blues, 1566 N. Milwaukee; 773-645-5200.

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

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