Your Complete Guide to the Chicago Blues Scene
Delmark Records’ West Side Blues Revue
with Billy Flynn & Friends
February 26, 2012
B.L.U.E.S., Chicago, IL
By Linda Cain
photos: Dianne Bruce Dunklau
photos: Dianne Bruce Dunklau
Delmark Records sure knows how to throw a party! The venerable Chicago label has famously hosted all-star Blues Brunches during Chicago Blues Fest for years at the Jazz Record Mart, which are always a morning treat for early riser diehards.
When the label and its publicist Kevin Johnson recently decided to hold Delmark showcases on Sunday nights at B.L.U.E.S. (on Halsted) they knew exactly what to do: ask Billy Flynn to act as bandleader/host and to invite his musician friends to perform.
With Flynn’s status as a Grammy winning musician (for his work on the Cadillac Records film soundtrack) -- also a well-known studio session player, and a roving freelance guitarist in bands with Jimmy Dawkins, Billy Boy Arnold, Jody Williams, Kim Wilson, Mississippi Heat, Legendary Blues Band, Cash Box Kings and Special 20’s -- it was a given that Sunday night at B.L.U.E.S. would become packed with an incredible lineup of blues talent, both on and off stage.
The musicians who performed with the incredibly versatile and talented Flynn ( who remains as humble and friendly a soul as you’d ever hope to meet) were: James Wheeler, Silas “Milwaukee Slim” McClatcher, Barrelhouse Chuck, Oscar Wilson, Willie Buck, Mary Lane, Jody Williams, Elmore James, Jr., Scott Dirks, Martin Lang, Dave Waldman, Ed Williams, Kevin Shanahan, Jimmy Burns, Tail Dragger and Rockin’ Johnny. Billy and Friends were backed by the stellar rhythm section of Bob Stroger on bass and Kenny “Beady Eyes" Smith on drums.
Three of the above-mentioned artists had just returned from NYC where they performed in a tribute to Hubert Sumlin at the Apollo Theater. On Saturday night Billy Flynn, Jody Williams and Barrelhouse Chuck backed up luminaries like Keith Richards, Eric Clapton and Buddy Guy for Howlin’ for Hubert. On Sunday they were back in Chicago, crammed both on and off the tiny stage at B.L.U.E.S. None of them even mentioned to the audience where they’d played less than 24 hours ago. That’s how classy and humble Chicago’s blues players are! It was a night to leave one’s ego at home.
As the music played, countless familiar musicians kept rolling in to catch the show and catch up with each other for a true blues family reunion filled with hugs, handshakes and back slaps. In the audience were: Nick Moss, Michael Ledbetter, Chris Harper, Linsey Alexander, Eddie C. Campbell, Quintus McCormick, Rick Kreher, Rich Kirch, Mojo Mark Cihlar and Nick Charles along with along with Italian guitarists Breezy (a.k.a. Fabrizio) and Luca Giordano. Renowned producer Dick Shurman and award-winning writer Bill Dahl were also in the house.
Cowboy-hatted James Wheeler kicked off the festivities at 9:30 p.m. sharp, as he and Flynn traded tasty, jazzy blues guitar solos. Then bassist Bob Stroger took front and center to sing “Walkin’ The Streets and Cryin’”.
Wheeler led an upbeat shuffle which shifted into a jazzy arrangement of “Teeny Weeny Bit of Your Love.” The versatile veteran guitarist then laid back for a countryish version of Wolf’s “Baby, How Long?” featuring some soulful note bending, B.B. King style. For Wheeler’s final number, the band kicked up a “Mojo Workin’” beat and the agile guitarist followed with some country-flavored note pickin’. Wheeler stayed onstage a bit longer to help the trio back up the next round of guest vocalists.
Also finely dressed in cowboy attire, Silas “Milwaukee Slim” McClatcher grabbed a mic and stood on the floor in front of the crowded stage as tattooed harp player Martin Lang played along on “That’s Alright.” Flynn reeled off stinging, Muddy Waters’ style notes and Slim sang with authority and emotion as only a true blues man can. The vocalist closed his set with Jimmy Reed’s “Shame, Shame, Shame,” to the crowd’s delight. Milwaukee Slim, who recently moved to Chicago, was celebrating his birthday that night and a cake was served in his honor.
The Cash Box Kings’ singer Oscar Wilson stepped to the front for a slow blues number on which Flynn executed sublime slide playing, using his pinky finger, as Lang wailed mournfully on the harp. With impeccable chops and spot-on rhythm in his vocals, Wilson gave an animated performance for Howlin’ Wolf’s “Shake For Me” that got the band smokin’ and the crowd boogying.
Singer Willie Buck kept the momentum going with his manly Muddy Waters’ influenced vocals on the sensuous “Streamline Woman.” Harp player Dave Waldman joined in as Buck got the joint rockin’ and the crowd singing along on “I’m Ready.”
Next up was the ageless and feisty Mary Lane who belted out Elmore James’ “Dust My Broom” which gave Flynn an opportunity to really shine on slide guitar.
The band took a break, which gave everybody a chance to chat and network. They returned to the stage at 11:25 p.m.
Bob Stroger started with “Honey Hush.” He began the next song, introducing it as “an old, old tune that my Daddy used to do.” The bass player sang “Key to The Highway” in his bass voice with true command, as if he’d written the classic song himself. In fact, he did add his own touch to the final verse: “I’m gonna play these blues ‘til the day I die.” And you know he meant it.
Jody Williams, who no doubt was jet lagged after just returning from the Hubert Sumlin Tribute in NYC, got on stage and sat down to play his gorgeous gold and white Epiphone guitar. Best known as a stellar session musician from Chess Records’ golden era, Williams launched into his signature instrumental “Lucky Lou,” a tune he also played at the Apollo to a great reception, according to Barrelhouse Chuck.
Ed Williams, the sax man from Vance Kelly’s band, joined Jody Williams for some sax and guitar interplay on the next tune, a swingy, T-Bone Walker flavored number. Williams’ final song was an upbeat instrumental with a bouncy go-go beat, straight out of the ‘60s, that had us dancing in our chairs and remarking on what a brilliant, creative guitarist he is indeed.
The next artist, Elmore James, Jr., demonstrated why he, too, is an authentic blues guitar hero. The son of the legendary Elmore James sat on a stool in front of the small stage, while remarking, “this reminds me of Theresa’s.” Elmore, Jr. coaxed powerful, clear, resonant notes as he played slide on his brown and amber Epiphone, The band rocked behind him on standards: “Nobody Loves Me,” “Everyday I Have the Blues” and “Please Send Me Someone To Love.”
By now, it was after midnight and time for us to head home. However, the party kept going with sets by Tail Dragger, Rockin’ Johnny and more. According to Delmark’s Kevin Johnson, the night ended at 1:30 a.m. with Billy Flynn and Jimmy Burns singing verses of “Bye, Bye, Baby, Bye, Bye,” a song that the late Little Smokey Smothers used to close with.
Earlier that night, while thanking the audience, Billy Flynn said, “To quote Bob Stroger, I just want to say that blues people are love people!” Delmark’s blues party at the cozy, friendly B.L.U.E.S. on Halsted was proof positive of Stroger’s sage observation. We’re looking forward to more of Delmark’s blues love fests in the future!