A town that can't shake the blue

A town that can't shake the blue
May 9, 2010
Kevin Rushby
The Sidney Morning Herald Traveler

SO I'M in a blues club on Halsted, and Big Time Sarah walks in with snow on her hair. The band is shouting, "Get on up here!" And that dame grabs the mike and belts out a tune: "They call me Fanny Mae, and I've got the biggest tits in town!"

Then Jimmy comes in and says Carl Weathersby is blowin' over at Kingston Mines and we just gotta see it. Big Time says she's coming too, and we all pile out into the snow - jeez, it's 20 below - and run over the road. Inside, Jimmy grabs a five-string bass and they are jumpin'!

OK, I apologise. I'm going to stop the Kerouac pastiche now. And yet, all of the above is true. I hadn't known a soul when I walked into a club called B.L.U.E.S. at midnight, but when I ran out, it was with half-a-dozen new friends - a typical night out in Chicago's blues clubs, one rather like that 1950s "wild bop night" in On The Road when Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty race around Chicago's jazz joints.

Ever since I was 14, when I bought an album by Sonny Boy Williamson, I've yearned to go to Chicago's legendary clubs. My regret was that I'd left it so long.

Landing at O'Hare airport and taking a taxi through the majestic skyscrapers of downtown Chicago, I have a nagging anxiety: all those great blues musicians are dead, aren't they? And this is the US. What I'll be served is tourist blues: a tinsel-tasting soup of theme-park clubs and drama students playing at being Muddy Waters.

Steam is rising from the Tribune Tower by the river and the footpath is dotted with signs warning about falling ice. How, without super powers, I wonder, do you dodge falling ice? We drive under the famous "L", the city's overhead train, and I drop my bags at The Blackstone Hotel near Grant Park. Chicago's notorious gangsters had their first convention here in the '20s.

From there I head to City Hall to meet Barry Dolins, who organises Chicago's annual blues festival. This year's bash will, he tells me, be in honour of Howlin' Wolf, who was born a century ago. Wolf was the most distinctive of blues singers: his demonic growl could tear a girl's knickers off at 20 paces.

Not that Dolins puts it quite like that. He came to the blues as a fan, and stayed as an academic, studying its arrival in Chicago in the '20s.

"When they cleaned up New Orleans and the Storyville district, many musicians - like King Oliver and Louis Armstrong - moved to Chicago," he says.

"Thousands of poor black people came, working in terrible conditions in the slaughterhouses and steel mills of the South Side.

They needed to keep the community together so they had house parties - good food, home brew and music. Mostly it was with a piano, but then players like Tampa Red created the ensemble and went electric. By about 1952 you have the Chicago electric blues sound."

Dolins makes clear I needn't have worried about missing out on the greats - the blues lineage is still strong: "It's definitely still a mecca for blues - a real incubator for upcoming talent. And a few of the old guard are still playing: Billy Boy Arnold, for example, and Honeyboy Edwards, who is well into his 90s.

Edwards goes way back - he was with Robert Johnson the night he died (supposedly poisoned) in 1938."

Barry gives me his venue recommendations, too: B.L.U.E.S. and Kingston Mines, Buddy Guy's Legends, Rosa's, and Lee's Unleaded Blues Lounge.

Rosa's and Lee's Unleaded are on the South Side. Sadly the latter is only open at weekends and my timing is wrong. With Buddy Guy, however, I have it right. The guitarist, now in his 70s, plays a series of dates every January and I've got a ticket to one of the sell-out shows. Guy is a total entertainer: funny, wise, rude and of course, a stormily brilliant guitarist who does all the tricks Jimi Hendrix learned from him - playing with his teeth, using feedback, wild-man tactics followed by sudden calm.

Next day I meet Guy at his club - he remains accessible, like all the musicians on the blues scene - and we chat about his move from Louisiana to Chicago in the '50s.

"I got here 53 years ago and Howlin' Wolf, Jimmy Reed, Muddy Waters - all of them was in their prime," Guy says. "You could leave out this door here and say 'I wanna hear Jimmy Reed', but he's five blocks away, and you were walking and never made it to Jimmy Reed 'cos there was all small blues clubs with their front door open."

Guy played as a session musician on many classic recordings made in Chess Records' tiny studio. Despite a burgeoning reputation among other guitarists, Guy never hit fame - the owner of the record company, Leonard Chess, thought his style too wild.

It was only later that it proved to be the shape of things to come when Hendrix and other guitarists started copying his style.

On my last night, I head to Rosa's, a well-known club with typical blues-joint decor and atmosphere: low lights, a long bar and souvenir photographs and instruments dotted around the place.

The Pete Galanis Band get some heat going (they play at Rosa's every Tuesday and Friday).

Between sets, Tony Mangiullo, the club's owner, tells me how he came to Chicago from Italy 40 years ago. He was a drummer in Milan when Junior Wells and Guy came through on tour.

The Italian so loved their music he jumped on the next plane to Chicago and ended up sleeping on Wells's lounge while getting drumming gigs.

"My mamma came a year later to take me back," he tells me, grinning broadly.

Things didn't work out how mamma intended. In fact, she fell in love with the blues, too. "She never went home," Tony says. "Instead we opened a club!"

Sounds like someone ought to write a song about it.

Trip notes

Getting there

United Airlines flies from Sydney to Chicago via Los Angeles, priced from $1195. www.unitedairlines.com.au. Trains and buses run from the airport to the Loop (Chicago CBD).

Staying there

The Blackstone Hotel has rooms from $US279 ($305) a night. www.marriott.com. Rafaello Hotel has rooms from $US145. www.chicagoraffaello.com.
See + do

The Chicago Blues Festival runs from June 11-13. Free. www.chicagobluesfestival.us.

B.L.U.E.S. — Chicago Blues Bar, 2519 North Halsted. +1 773 528 1012, www.chicagobluesbar.com.

Kingston Mines, 2548 North Halsted. +1 773 477 4646, www.kingstonmines.com.

Buddy Guy's Legends, 754 South Wabash. +1 312 427 1190, www.buddyguys.com.

Rosa's, 3420 West Armitage Avenue. +1 773 342 0452, www.rosaslounge.com.

Lee's Unleaded Blues Lounge, 7401 South Chicago Avenue. +1 773 493 3477, www.leesunleadedblues.com.

More information www.explorechicago.org.
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