red lights

Chicago Can't Get Enough of the Blues

R.L. Burnside / T-Model Ford
House of Blues
Chicago, IL
Jan. 19, 2002
R.L. Burnside
Burnside gets introspective.

Review by Barry Brecheisen
Photos by Stevie Styles

Where would music be today without the influence of the blues? Can you imagine a world without Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix or even Led Zeppelin? All of their sounds are deeply rooted in the blues. Many say it all began with Robert Johnson in the '30s when he sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads. After that the music has never been the same. As each year passes we are losing all of the greats that started it all, one by one. In just the last couple of years John Lee Hooker, Screamin' Jay Hawkins and Junior Wells have all cashed their chips in. Lets face it Chicago is "THE" town to see the blues. Muddy Waters made sure of that. So it was a nice change of pace to find out that the House of Blues was actually going to have a Saturday night of blues... by the men who lived them. It's a rare event that HOB actually showcases an evening of blues.R.L. Burnside It should be mandatory for artists to dedicate at least a portion of their set to the blues when they play here. But that's another matter. Tonight is the sort of night dedicated to the delta blues of Mississippi. To many, the names of T-Model Ford and the headliner, R.L. Burnside are quite foreign. In fact for the most part neither had an official release until the early 90s. Still, there is no mistaking their sound and the truth that bleeds out of these two elder statesmen. Much like Junior Kimbrough, they were both born and raised in Mississippi and play the raw rhythms dominating the delta juke joint sound. There's no confusing this with the flashy guitar solo driven sound of everybody's local favorite - Buddy Guy. This is down and gritty, primal thumping music that reels you in and won't let you go.
First up was 79 year old T-Model Ford. He may be a senior citizen but he'll be just as happy to put his foot up your ass as he sang "Kick Your Ass." He sounded pretty convincing too and I wouldn't want to piss him off. Still, there's something likable about him. Perhaps it's that big smile that seems to break out every time he holds that crying note a couple of seconds too long. In between what appeared to be sips of bourbon, Ford consistently sang about his two favorite subjects, women and booze. Hell, that might be why he's smiling on the outside, but, no doubt, crying on the inside. When his time was up Ford stood his ground until he was allowed to play a couple more tunes. This is a man that gets what he wants and won't be short changed.
T-Model Ford Next up is the headliner that has a love / hate relationship with the city of Chicago. Personally I would understand if he never wanted to step foot in the Windy City again. As he describes in "Hard Time Killing Floor," his first impressions of Chicago were just plain horrible. Inspired by John Lee Hooker, R.L. headed for Chicago in hopes of fame and fortune during the 1950s. However, in a span of a month his father, brother and uncle were all murdered. By 1959 he was back in Mississippi working on the farm, but still playing the blues on nights and weekends. Like his fellow label mate, T-Model Ford, it wouldn't be until his later years that he would actually begin a recording career. Since 1992 he has released over ten albums. Most recently a live collection called Burnside on Burnside. Lately his health has been diminishing so I was happy to get a rare chance to see him. Much like Ford, R.L., Burnside was seated in a wooden chair on stage left with only bass and percussion backing him up. With beat-up red baseball cap, suspenders, oversized flannel shirt and plenty of front teeth missing (maybe he pissed-off T-Model), he boarded us all on his blues gravy train. His sound is what you'd hear from the back porches of the Mississippi bayous or expect back in the glory days of Chicago's Maxwell Street. In between songs, you can bet R.L. will share a story or tell a joke. He loves to talk, to carry on the tradition of life's loves and losses in both spoken word and song. His band mates are his grandson Cedric Burnside and (as he told the crowd) his adopted son Kenny Brown. Listening to the lyrics you can sense he's had a hard life and has lived every word. You can see Cedric in the background hitting the skins and mouthing every word. It's wonderful thinking that his grandson is there sharing in the moment of the glory and success of his grandfather. He's reliving his grandpa's life at every show. Limited fame may have come late for both men, yet tonight the blues only cared about each man's well travelled heart and soul.

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