Tuesday, May 29, 2007

How they play blues in Chicago

Carey Bell, the Mississippi-born harmonica player who passed away earlier this month in Chicago at the age of 70, was among a dwindling number of bluesmen who learned from the giants who had also moved North after the Second World War: Little Walter Jacobs, Big Walter Horton, Junior Wells, James Cotton and others.

There was so much talent in the Windy City, you could hear terrific blues almost every night, and soon Bell, who was born Carey Bell Harrington in Macon, Miss., became part of the city’s busy music scene — it was the world’s most important city for the blues before the giants passed away.

There are still a few of them left: Buddy Guy keeps doing great work, and so does Jimmy Burns (see review below). Bell’s latest and probably his last, unfortunately, is called “Gettin’ Up Live” (Delmark). It’s been released as a CD and a DVD and includes his son Lurrie on guitar and some vocals, along with the great Bob Stroger on bass and was partly recorded at Buddy Guy’s Legends in downtown Chicago, as well as at Rosa’s Lounge on the north side. Four numbers were recorded in Lurrie’s home. This is a modern classic. Bell often played in Arkansas: We caught him a few years ago at Riverfest and at Cajun’s Wharf, when it showcased prominent bluesmen who passed through the area.

Both the CD and the DVD that have been issued simultaneously let you experience what Chicago blues is all about. Bell was a fine harmonica player and had a decent voice, and to watch the video and hear the CD is like going into a neighborhood bar and catching a glimpse of the music Mississippi transplants have been playing in Chicago for more than 60 years. (Although seminal artists like Big Bill Broonzy, who was born in Mississippi but grew up in Arkansas, predated most of the Mississippi musicians when he moved to Chicago in the 1920s and helped establish the city as the blues capital of the world.)

Bell was recorded at the two Chicago clubs last year, although he looks more frail in the segment from Legends, filmed last fall a few months after his appearance at Rosa’s. He died a few months later, but he left behind a wonderful legacy with his last CD and DVD. There are a couple of bonus tracks on the DVD, which you should get if you can’t afford both. It’s all here: A great band cooking on “What My Mama Told Me,” “Baby Please Don’t Go,” “Last Night,” “Stand by Me” and much more.
We love this stuff.

You might also listen to his “Heartaches and Pain,” a 1970s record that Delmark released in 2004 as part of a series recorded by Ralph Bass, who was a prominent producer for Chess in its heyday. It also features his son Lurrie, who might consider forming a band with his musical siblings and make it down to Arkansas one of these days.

Jimmy Burns is another Mississippi blues artist who’s moved to Chicago and he, too, has a new Delmark CD and DVD called “Live at B.L.U.E.S.” This is his fourth record from Delmark.

Burns, still in his 60s, is a fine guitar player and singer who is a native of the Clarksdale, Miss., area. I’ve never seen him perform, although we stood together a while back while we were watching (I think) Mavis Staples at Ground Zero in Clarksdale. He is a quiet type who turns into a dynamic performer once he gets onstage. He performs for nearly an hour on “Live at B.L.U.E.S.”

It’s real blues for real blues fans. He should keep singing “Country Boy in the City” and “Wild About You Baby” for a long time.