pathway to THE BLUES

"I'm from Chicago... yes I love the Blues!"


“I’m from Chicago… yes I love the Blues!”

I have uttered that phrase more than once, and talked about blues music innumerable times as I travelled around the world.  It’s a hallmark of Chicago I prefer discussing at length, much more than ”Al Capone, bang! bang!”, Oprah, Michael Jordan or even “BARACK OBAMA!” I guess the blues are in my roots… transplanted from Greece to Chicago two generations before me (there they call it ‘Rebetika’).

I grew up listening to the radio, and have early memories of tuning-in to WXRT for ”Blues Breakers” – on-air for over 30 years!  I never thought about classifications – Delta Blues, Chicago Blues – just dug the sound of Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, Junior Wells, John Lee Hooker and others.  

Then came R.L. Burnside. His superbly titled 1996 album A Ass Pocket of Whiskey, recorded with Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, rocked my world.  The fired-up, punked-out version of these old blues songs introduced me to a blues style I’d never heard before.  Fast forward to 1998, when my then future bro-in-law insisted we get to the Vic in time to see Galactic’s opening band.  I knew they were the sons of Jim Dickinson, who was legendary to me for producing The Replacements’ Pleased to Meet Me and Big Star.

North Mississippi Allstars...  what a tight trio.  Maybe I’m a sucka for a slide guitar, but the beat and the boogie, the sound and the energy and the crazy electric washboard drew me in and turned me on to Hill Country Blues.  I went back and found RL’s 1998 album Come On In, and the classic stuff by him and Junior Kimbrough.  Allstars’ take on the Blues made me dig deeper and find a new love for old sounds, and the treasured labels Fat Possum and Alligator Records. NMA’s live and recorded sound has evolved since their first album, Shake Hands With ShortyKeys to the Kingdom (2011) is a powerful record – gripping, raw and inspired.  ”The Meeting” is a full-on revival featuring the marvelous Mavis Staples, ”NOLA Walkin Dead” is a quintessential NMA bluesy boogie, and the album finishes with some heavenly piano that feels like a pure celebration and channeling of the ever-present patriarch of boogie, Jim Dickinson.

And then there’s Robert Randolph. Since the Dickinson brothers first heard the sacred steel sounds of Robert Randolph and brought him in to open for NMA a decade ago, Robert has taken music (and sports) fans by storm.  Blues is true American roots music…  but MAN does the soul and spirit rise when you infuse it with gospel!  No more perfectly was that sound celebrated than on the 2001 album The Word, featuring Robert, North Mississippi Allstars and John Medeski.  (If you don’t have that CD, buy it NOW!) Robert’s 2010 release We Walk This Road offers another funked-up take on gospel-blues.  Produced by T Bone Burnett, with Dylan and Lennon covers, it is a nod to the roots of his brand of fusion, with the punctuated presence of spiritual slide-guitarist, Blind Willie Johnson.

Robert Randolph & North Mississippi Allstars @ House of Blues 12/31/10

What better way to celebrate the new year than with a full-tilt BLUES SHOW?  After all, it’s what Chicago is known for!