Release date: June 1, 2020
By Greg Easterling
Our lives have been turned upside down over the last few months by Covid-19 and more recently by demonstrations and street fighting. Chicago's internationally renowned blues clubs have been silent except for occasional online performances without live audiences. Even the 2020 Chicago Blues Festival has been canceled. So how about a new live record from a real Chi-town blues club by a talented Windy City blues veteran who's played from the South Side to Millennium Park? Live At Rosa's by guitarist-vocalist Linsey Alexander and band is a bright light on the wall of a darkened club. It's also one of the latest releases from Chicago's historic Delmark Records featuring guitar based electric blues for a whole wide world of fans starved for a new live album in the tradition of the Otis Rush classic All Your Love, I Miss Loving: Live at the Wise Fool's Pub Chicago. It says so on the back cover of Alexander's new live album, an endorsement of quality linking Linsey to one of Chicago's finest, the late great Otis Rush, a powerful but lyrical throwback to an earlier era of blues from the West Side.
On the way to Chicago in 1963, Alexander followed a classic path from his birthplace in Holly Springs, Mississippi in the early Forties. A Civil War era town known for share cropping and a famous Yellow Fever epidemic, Holly Springs is the birthplace of pioneering civil rights figure Ida B. Wells whose name is now well known in Chicago. It's also fertile ground for the blues. Besides Linsey, the Holly Springs area is also related to an impressive list: Syl Johnson, brother of beloved senior Chicago bluesman Jimmy Johnson, plus pioneering Mississippi Hill Country blues players R.L. Burnside, Junior Kimbrough and Robert Belfour, all of whom recorded for Fat Possum Records.
At 12, Alexander's next stop was Memphis with his family. While he was not old enough to get into clubs on legendary Beale Street, music was in the air and it's also where Linsey learned to play guitar. Then it was on to Chicago in '63 and the Ingleside neighborhood. Alexander would finally catch up with Chicago blues icons, Howlin' Wolf, Junior Wells, and Lefty Dizz.
Like many others, the blues would have to be a part time pursuit for Linsey for a number of years while working day jobs. He would stay on the South Side playing Red's at 35th and Archer Avenue meeting his longtime bass player Ron Simmons during this period. Alexander retired from work at the age of 58 and has been able to devote himself to music full time ever since, moving to regular gigs at noted Halsted Street clubs B.L.U.E.S and Kingston Mines as well as House of Blues at the landmark Marina City. Linsey would also start recording albums to sell at the clubs before signing with Delmark for the first of three studio albums, Two Cats, Come Back Baby and Been There Done That. Live at Rosa's is Alexander's fourth Delmark album and first live effort for the label recorded over two nights in May, 2019 at Rosa's Lounge, a friendly North Side blues spot frequented by Billy Branch.
Linsey Live kicks off with a B.B. King number from the classic 1965 Live At The Regal LP recorded here in Chicago. It's the straight forward “Please Love Me,” an open invitation that is personal and musically arranged in the uptempo style of “Sweet Home Chicago.” Linsey's opening exhortation “Look out, look out” signifies that something special is about to happen. Veteran Chicago blues keyboardist Roosevelt Purifoy takes the first solo here followed by Linsey on the second.
Next, Linsey reaches back to his second indie album for its title track, “My Days Are So Long” from 2006. It's another fast one propelled by the rhythm section of Ron Simmons on bass and “Big” Ray Stewart on drums. Alexander laments “I can't sleep at night, I lay awake thinking about you,” delivering a strong opening solo followed by another stellar keyboard contribution from Purifoy.
After a fast start, it's time to slow it down with a soulful rendition of the Freddie King blues ballad also covered by Eric Clapton with Derek and the Dominoes most famously for the Layla album. “Have You Ever Loved A Woman” is the album's longest jam clocking in at 8:48 and worth every second. Linsey plays with the lyrics, adding a few of his own with some burning hot guitar work.
Then Linsey reaches into his very own songbook for two original songs back to back. The first, “I Got A Woman” comes from an earlier Delmark release. “I Got A Woman” finds a nice faster groove and stays there. It's a celebration of love when things are right and a nice contrast to the more common blues situation when things are not! “Goin' Out Walking” puts the guitar out front with plenty of tasty solos. It's also a musical atlas that gets out on the road with lyrical references to San Antonio, Memphis, New Orleans.
Alexander keeps it down south as he pulls out a Latimore number, “Somethin' Bout 'Cha” from the chitlin' circuit. It's the kind of bedtime blues ballad at which Latimore excels but Linsey more than keeps up with him with a great electric blues cover and one of his best vocal performances here.
Then back to the Windy City for a rockin' weather forecast of “Snowing In Chicago.” Purifoy reemerges here with a great organ solo before the final verse. He inspires another great guitar solo right before the end of the song. Then it's still pure Chi-town with a Junior Wells classic, “Ships On the Ocean,” track number two from perhaps the most legendary Delmark release ever, Hoodoo Man Blues, featuring both Junior and Buddy Guy. It's the album's next to longest track with guitar solos taking the place of Wells' harp on the original. Linsey was not intimidated and his reinterpretation here turns out to be another of one of the album's highlights.
It's only appropriate to finish up Live at Rosa's with a song about returning, “Going Back To My Old Time Used To Be,” and Linsey credits his talented son Nick for the guitar riff. It's a wonderful thing to have the next generation ready to go! But for Chicago/The Blues/Today to steal an album title from the legendary Chicago blues anthology, you can't find a better representation than Linsey and his band also including guitarist Sergei Androshin who contributes throughout.
Delmark's new owners are taking a hands on approach. Julia A. Miller produced the album while Elbio Barilari mixed it. Longtime Delmark mainstay Steve Wagner, who recently announced his retirement, recorded Linsey Live on May 16-17 of 2019.
Who knew that we would need a stellar live album of Chicago blues to get us through this difficult period of shuttered businesses and boarded up windows? We can depend on legendary labels like Delmark and great performers such as Linsey Alexander to deliver during these uncertain times. Music is essential and can still be appreciated in an era where social distancing and masked faces are required. The blues is still alright and always will be!
Greg Easterling hosts American Backroads on WDCB (90.9 FM) Thursdays at 9 p.m.