story by David Witter
image by Alan ‘Streetphotos’ Kong
On a warm Sunday evening in September of 1981, I found myself standing on 43rd Street, the result of a rumor that the Rolling Stones were going to appear at The Checkerboard Lounge. A few hours later I watched as Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Charlie Watts — and later Muddy Waters, Lefty Dizz, Buddy Guy and Junior Wells — entered for what promised to be the “Supreme Chicago Blues Jam” documentary film. Although the film was never made, that evening stood as a watershed of musical, cultural and racial harmony for Chicago blues as the reining kings of rock and roll joined their musical idols only two years before Waters’ death.
Twenty-five years later, the Checkerboard Lounge has re-opened at a new location at 5201 S. Harper. But just like the address, the artistic, economic, and social position of the music has changed. Hip hop and iPods now rule the national music scene and the local blues landscape has seen the music disappear from Maxwell Street and clubs like The Wise Fools Pub, Koko Taylor’s, B.L.U.E.S. etc., and the old Checkerboard. Now Chicago blues has suffered another body blow as David Grazin’s book, Blue Chicago: The Search for Authenticity in Urban Blues Clubs, is bringing into the forefront two longstanding and controversial issues within the blues community: One, many of the remaining large club owners shun white artists as headliners in order to preserve the image of “authentic black” blues for European, Asian, and suburban tourists. And two, these artists are forced to continually play what is known as “the set from hell” — which entails rehashing standards like “Sweet Home Chicago”, “Mannish Boy”, “Hootchie Kootchie Man”, and “The Thrill is Gone” at the expense of new, original material that could possibly breathe new life into the decaying art form.
“In order to pander to the crowd’s stereotypical idea of blues, owners reject bands with too many white members or with white front men, and largely hire African-American men to perform the shows, regardless of talent,” Grazin writes. Many white musicians who have spent their careers as both bandleaders and sidemen tentatively agree with Grazin’s statement. “Sometimes people, especially tourists, still listen with their eyes,” says Scott Madden, a blues bandleader whose group, The Madman Blues Band, has appeared at the Chicago Blues Festival. “Fortunately, I think that whole stereotype is slowly changing,” Madden continues. “Now you have people like Liz Madeville-Greeson performing at Blue Chicago, [her web site describes her as ‘the only white performer to sing at Blue Chicago’] and now Kingston Mines.”
Buddy Guy’s Legends is also the one “major” club that has consistently gone against this policy. Guy, who is the only musician/owner, has not only booked acts like Dr. John, Charlie Musselwhite, Dave Specter, Tab Benoit and Rob Piazza, but also has been instrumental in giving exposure to local white and mixed-race bands like Howard and the White Boys and Devil in a Woodpile. “Musicians do not see color,” Keith Richards, Guy’s friend and running mate, said. “They see only notes.”
But perhaps the best news about the Chicago blues is that there are many thriving blues scenes. Grazin, who is from New York, need only to look past the well-known “full-time” blues clubs of downtown and Lincoln Park and into the smaller bars, lounges and restaurants that populate Chicago and suburban neighborhoods.
“There are a lot of restaurants, bars, and smaller clubs who might not be as large but still feature blues a couple of nights a week,” says Madden, who brings decades of experience, scholarship, and dedication to his band’s performances. “Some of the places in the city include the Wabash Tap, which is at the old Koko Taylor club site, Smoke Daddy on West Division, Redfish — a downtown restaurant — [and] Katrina’s near Irving and Damen.”
Madden’s performances are tailor made for what may be the “new” blues audiences. A typical set may intermingle blues classics like “Big Boss Man” and “Key to the Highway” with Herbie Hancock’s “Watermelon Man”, a Hank Williams country tune, and a Booker T and the MG’s-style instrumental jam. This set appeals to a growing mix of late baby boomer/early Gen Xers who see the blues as a foundation for a type of intelligent, seminal roots music not dependent on heavy metal or programmed beats.
Another perfect example of this type of emerging blues artist is David “Chainsaw” Dupont. Dupont has released three CDs in as many years, containing almost all original material. On his latest effort, Bourbon Street Breakdown, Dupont works within the time-honored, 12-bar tradition, but adds original twists. “Nobody’s Fool” is a take on the Fats Domino style, “C’mon Cat” is influenced by the horns of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, “Six Dollar Ticket” employs French Acadian fiddles, and “The Train” is a take-off on the “Midnight Special” theme. Combined, they form a disc of varied sounds that avoid the repetitive 3-guitar, 12-bar-intro-then-lead-solo droning that, unlike the great piano/harmonica/guitar blend of Muddy Waters’ Chess days, has now come to symbolize ” Chicago” blues.
The classic songs about mules kicking and roosters crowing do hint at the city’s blues sentiment and tradition, yet also present a dichotomy for younger audiences.
“A lot of the songs they play in the downtown and Lincoln Park and even a lot of the smaller clubs on the West Side feature a lot of lyrics about double entendre, or just straight sexual references that may appeal to tourists, but not younger, and especially female, listeners,” says Steve Pacek, who manages Dupont and also co-writes many of his songs. “The big clubs encourage the artists to play these same old songs thinking that that is what people want to hear. But the problem is that guys who want to write and play newer songs don’t get gigs at the name Chicago clubs.”
Like other more original acts, Dupont has been forced to find new venues for his new material. In the upcoming weeks, he will be performing at the Horseshoe Bar on North Lincoln Avenue, Sky Harbor in Naperville, Orazio in Northbrook, A Slice of Chicago in Palatine, the Heaven on Seven restaurants in Chicago and Naperville, and Smoke Daddy’s. During the same weeks, however, he will also be performing at Buddy Guy’s Legends and the new Checkerboard Lounge. Hopefully, bringing new material to a traditional club like The Checkerboard may finally breathe new life into an art form that has not moved so far forward since that sunny fall day in l981.
CI Special Report #002