By Robin Zimmerman
Photos: Mike Hoffman
Surrounded by a sparkling lake and well-manicured green space, the Al Larson Theater at the Prairie Center for the Arts in suburban Schaumburg seems a far cry from the gritty Maxwell Street and West Side blues scenes. But this sleek theater recently played host to Delmark Records’ 70th Anniversary celebration featuring a stellar lineup of some of its label’s leading lights and brightest Chicago-based blues artists.
Sponsored by WDCB radio and the Chicago Blues Guide’s Linda Cain, this landmark event featured three bands and their very special guest artists. The show was filmed by iView Music for a concert documentary that will be streamed online on the Mandolin platform at a future date.
The night kicked off with the irrepressible Dave Weld and the Imperial Flames featuring the uber-talented harp player, Pierre Lacocque from the band Mississippi Heat. Weld and singer Monica Myhre belted out original songs from the band’s hot new release Nightwalk.
After a brief intermission, Mike Wheeler and his high-energy band came on to jam and perform original songs from their 2018 Delmark album, Turn Up. They were later joined by recent KoKo Taylor “Queen of the Blues” award recipient, the indomitable Demetria Taylor, who kicked the action up another notch. Mike Wheeler and his bandmates backed up the sassy singer on Demetria’s new release, Doin’ What I’m Supposed To Do,” that is getting rave reviews and lots of airplay.
Closing out the show was long-tenured Delmark talent, Dave Specter, and his band featuring Brother John Kattke with special guest, the legendary Jimmy Burns. Specter literally grew up recording at Delmark’s studios, and his recent release, Six String Soul: 30 Years on Delmark, reflects his evolution from a session player and sideman to an artist and bandleader in his own right.
The evening concluded with a chill-inducing all-star jam featuring the entire cast packing the stage and playing “Further on Up the Road” and “Wang Dang Doodle.”
Like many of the pioneering blues artists that the label has represented, Delmark started in the south before moving north to Chicago to burnish its legacy. The Delmark story begins in St. Louis in 1953, with crusty Bob Koester who christened it “Delmar.” When Koester made the move to the Windy City in 1958, he switched it up to the present-day “Delmark.”
Recognized as the “oldest continuously operating jazz and blues independent record label,” Delmark’s long list of highly respected blues artists throughout its 70-year history includes everyone from Magic Sam and Otis Rush to Junior Wells and Buddy Guy (who recorded under the “Friendly Chap” moniker due to contractual issues).
Besides recording a dizzying breadth of blues artists on the label, many future movers and shakers drew a paycheck by working at Koester’s Jazz Record Mart. This list of former employees includes Charlie Musselwhite, Alligator’s Bruce Iglauer and Dave Specter, who received guitar lessons from Steve Freund at the Grand Avenue institution.
The Koester era ended in May of 2018 when Julia A. Miller took over the reins as CEO along with Artistic Director, Elbio Barilari. But, despite the regime change, the Chicago-centric focus on music remained. Miller did her undergraduate work in music at DePaul, where she hit the local blues clubs in her free time. Her resume includes everything from serving as a professor of sound at Chicago’s Art Institute, a specialization in synthesized guitar, and many other accomplishments. Barilari also boasts an impressive musical background that blends music and academia both here and in his native Uruguay.
Now, with their “5-year arc” becoming a reality, Delmark is well-positioned for the next stage in the label’s illustrious history. Miller has worked to elevate Delmark’s digital footprint as it continues to churn out a prodigious number of new releases from some of Chicago’s finest.
Although Miller and Barilari aren’t born and bred Chicagoans, it’s apparent that they are doing their part to nurture and promote many of Chicago’s storied blues artists. They took the stage in Schaumburg that Saturday night to proudly introduce each of their label’s acts to the enthusiastic fans that came from all over Chicagoland.
There’s Weld who learned his trade in the old West-Side blues clubs and perfected his slide guitar skills with none other than J.B. Hutto. This friendship led to Weld’s teaming up with Lil’ Ed and the Blues Imperials before forming his own band in 2008 and joining forces with Delmark in 2009.
Wheeler is another native Chicagoan who has been on the scene for almost 40 years and has played with all the greats beginning in 1984 with Muddy Waters’ piano player, Lovie Lee. Wheeler recently embarked on a European tour where it’s a safe bet that he’ll be representing Chicago by donning Bears, Sox, or Bulls apparel as he wows the crowds with his friendly persona, soulful vocals and ferocious guitar skills.
Closing out the night was Northwest Side native, Dave Specter. His tenure with Delmark dates back to 1990 and the veteran was on his game throughout the evening. Accompanied by Brother John Kattke on keys and vocals, he played a range of tunes including “March Through the Darkness,” “Blues from the Inside Out” and “Chicago Style.” They were later joined by the legendary Jimmy Burns, who received a well-deserved homage from the blues faithful.
With such an overload of local talent, it was a joy to see it all come together at the Prairie Center on Saturday, October 22, 2022. The place was packed, and every artist brought their A-game to this blues blowout that showcased a variety of musical styles while serving notice that Delmark---and the state of Chicago blues--- is in good hands.
Another high note was the kinship and camaraderie that the Delmark artists displayed towards each other. They were effusive with the praise for their on-stage peers, and it truly seemed like it was one big happy blues family. While Demetria Taylor calls Wheeler her “big brother," her real-life uncle is Jimmy Burns, so it was a heartwarming sight to see the two of them interact during the group grand finale. Bass player Larry Williams has been lifelong friends with Wheeler and their bond is evident in the way they play off each other musically. Highlights like this were prevalent throughout the course of this joyful blues reunion for both musicians and audience members in attendance.
The complete line up of participating musicians can be found below and all should be commended for contributing to the night’s success. And, while Delmark had a dizzying breadth of talent on display, there are so many other Delmark artists who have been making their mark on both the Chicago and international blues scenes. From Mud Morganfield channeling his legendary old man overseas and 91-year-old Bob Stroger tearing it up with Brazil’s Headcutters to a new generation of phenoms like Jose Ramirez and Breezy Rodio, this 70-year-old label has managed to evolve with the times while still staying true to the blues.
Dave Weld and the Imperial Flames with special guest Pierre Lacocque
Dave Weld (vocals, guitar, slide guitar)
Pierre Lacocque (harmonica)
Mona Rose (Monica Myhre) (vocals, percussion)
Jeffrey Taylor (drums, vocals)
Harry YaSeen (piano, organ)
Kenny Pickens (bass guitar)
Rogers Randle Jr. (alto/baritone sax)
Mike Wheeler Band with special guest Demetria Taylor
Mike Wheeler (guitar, vocals)
Demetria Taylor (vocals)
Larry Williams (bass, vocals)
Cleo Cole (drums)
Dave Specter Band with special guest Jimmy Burns
Dave Specter (guitar, vocals)
Jimmy Burns (guitar, vocals)
Brother John Kattke (keyboard, vocals)
Harlan Terson (bass)
Marty Binder (drums)
About the Author: Blues enthusiast Robin Zimmerman, a.k.a. Rockin' Robin, writes a Blues Blog and is a regular contributor to Chicago Blues Guide