By Robin Zimmerman
Photos: Howard Greenblatt
L to R: Mike Wheeler, Cleo Cole, LaMonte DeMille, Larry Williams
Bluesday Tuesday with Mike Wheeler Band & special guests at FitzGerald's, Berwyn, IL, 12-7-2021
It’s time to give a collective tip of the cap to Tom Marker and FitzGerald’s Nightclub for providing a heavy dose of joy and normalcy during these strange times. Because there was a bell-ringing blues party that went down on December 7th as the Mike Wheeler Band and a cast of special guest stars played their heart out for a slew of grateful fans.
It’s been well-documented that new FitzGerald’s owner Will Duncan took over the club just before the Covid-19 lockdown in 2020 so it’s interesting to see it spruced for its official holiday season with Duncan at the helm. Indoor dining recently began at the beautiful new BabyGold Barbecue and the revamped Side Bar stands ready to serve up holiday cheer with retro-cocktails, which pair perfectly with the festive atmosphere that prevails throughout the club’s Berwyn campus.
While FitzGerald’s atmosphere is quite festive, all Covid protocols are enforced including proof of vaccination and mask requirements. But, once the vax cards were produced, it was Bluesday Tuesday as usual and the many regulars, meet up groups and the few newbies couldn’t be happier to be there. After being shut down for Covid in 2020 and then held outside on the Fitzgerald’s patio, Bluesday Tuesday returned to its indoor residency in November after a 15-month absence from the big stage.
Dyed-in-the wool blues fans have been attending "Bluesday" since its inception back in 2015 in partnership with WDCB radio and longtime DJ/blues booster, Tom Marker. Since it runs early on a “school night,” the concept caught on and Marker continues to hold court on the first Tuesday of every month. Folks can also tune in and listen to the opening hour of bona fide Chicago blues on WDCB at 7 p.m.
Although Mike Wheeler has played FitzGerald’s and Bluesday Tuesday before, there was raw energy was in the air for his reemergence on December 7th. The cynical might think it was because Wheeler’s bosses at Delmark were front-and-center, but Wheeler is a proven commodity in the crowded field of Chicago blues who continually puts on a great show.
Looking fit in all-black attire, Wheeler and his band came out blazing the very minute the live broadcast kicked off. He ripped into a few cuts from his first Delmark CD, Self-Made Man, which was released in 2012. Although that was nearly a decade ago, Wheeler’s bandmates remain the same. There’s Larry Williams on bass, Cleo Cole on drums and Brian James on keyboard. This familiarity breeds contentment as the long-standing quartet demonstrates a friendly camaraderie, superior musicianship, and always-entertaining stage presence.
Wheeler’s been on the Chicago music scene for almost 40 years and writes many of his own songs on both Self-Made Man and his 2016 Delmark release, Turn Up. But he also “turns up" with stellar cover versions and that included his rendition of “Dear Prudence.” By taking on a Beatles classic, this versatile musician showed his chops with other genres besides the standard 12-bar blues.
The proverbial team player, Wheeler seemed pleased to share the stage with others and brought on several blues powerhouses over the course of the evening. His first guest was his “little sis," vocalist Demetria Taylor. Taylor’s real-life family ties are impressive as she is the daughter of late blues artist Eddie Taylor, Senior and a musical mother to her offspring. She also has several siblings who sing and play the blues. With this DNA, it’s easy to see that Taylor also has a dynamic stage presence and soon had the crowd of “Bluesday Tuesday” dancers out of their chairs and up on the FitzGerald’s dance floor.
While Taylor’s been a longtime fixture on the Chicago blues scene, Wheeler also brought on a guest performer who has played his B.B.-style brand of blues more often on the West Coast. LaMonte DeMille came on with his “Blucille” guitar to take a turn on "Why I Sing the Blues." His fretwork was as fancy as his blue-sequined jacket!
Wheeler’s next guest was Billy Prewitt, who played both harp and guitar with Otis Rush and has sat in with legions of famous blues luminaries. His musical experience spans over six decades and he recently received a Chicago/Midwest Emmy for his Talk a Blues Streak documentary. But, on this night, Prewitt let his guitar do the talking with a sizzling version of “Lovin’ Cup.”
The cup of bonus blues artists continued to run over when saxophonist Ryan Shea came on stage to add some “West Side/South Side” funk to the final songs of an amazing second set. West-Sider Demetria Taylor rejoined the stage where Shea added some polished sax licks to Wheeler and company’s version of “Car Wash.” This, along with old-school covers including James Brown’s “Get on Up” and Tyrone Davis’ “Can I Change My Mind” closed out the show in fine fashion and left the crowd wanting for more.
Fear not, friends. Because Bluesday Tuesday returns in January and will feature the Nick Moss Band along with special guest, Oscar Wilson. With the staff at FitzGerald’s taking some well-deserved time off after the busy holiday season, it will be held on the second Tuesday for January only. So, mark your calendars for January 11th, 2022, and set aside the ten bucks for one of the best entertainment bargains around---right in the new blues bastion of Berwyn.