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Thursday, May 26, 2005

Small Business Death Rattle

I like to think that I am an economically rational person, but I occasionally invest in things that are pretty shaky. In 2003, I became aware of an undercapitalized guy who was trying to open a blues club in my hometown. Now, I have longed to have a local blues club in my 'hood for a very long time (I am a knucklehead for the blues - what can I say?). I knew that the odds are long against the success of such an enterprise, but I figured out how much money I could afford to lose, got together with a couple of like-minded friends and put the dough in. The club opened in August 2003 and I have had a marvelous time hanging out there, hearing people like James Cotton, Rod Piazza, Magic Slim and the Teardrops, Carey Bell, L'il Ed and the Blues Imperials, Eddy "the Chief" Clearwater -- and many others. I have also hopped up on stage and played some harmonica, sang some songs, and made a complete fool of myself.

The club has struggled from the very first. The operator was over-optimistic about revenues and over-generous on expenses. The Northwestern University community was a big part of the business plan, but the college kids ain't down with the blues anymore. The manager of the club has made many mid-course corrections, but we continue to chase break-even. He raised additional money (including a little more from me), but the well now looks dry. Unless something positive happens soon, the place will probably die over the summer. Last month, the club lacked the money to pay certain amounts to the State of Illinois (the liquor retailer's license fee went unpaid, which causes problems in the booze supply chain. The bar was running out of booze!). Well, the operator managed to scape together enough money to pay the state and we have product on the shelves again. A massive influx of thirsty people is required to get some air under the wings of this sick little business. I think I hear death rattling in the bar.

I think this place enriches our community. It is a dirty shame that the community doesn't care enough to support it.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

The Hypnotic Brass Ensemble

For the past couple of days, the northeast corner of Madison and Wells has been occupied by an unusual group of young men. They are the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, an eight-piece band that consists of three trumpeters, three trombonists, a Sousaphone player and a drummer. They have the instrumentation of a New Orleans brass band, but they have a sound that goes beyond the "Dirty Dozen Brass Band" world. While their tunes have a lot of rhythmic forward motion, there is also a drone to the music (they call themselves "Hypnotic" for a reason). All of the musicians are the son of a single man - Sun Ra's trumpet player, Kelan Phil Cohran. Phil is a legend in Chicago - for his creativity and his remarkable skills of procreation. He has nineteen children, from 4-5 different women.

So I bought their home-produced CD - I am going to tee it up tonight to see if it captures the energy and verve that they spill out on the streets of the Loop.

Friday, May 13, 2005

King of the Blues Chromatic Harmonica Posted by Hello

Blues Chromatic

I arrived back home after wandering the southern reaches of Illinois with Amanda, my 13-year old daughter. And one of the first things I did when I walked in the house was grab my Hering 64 chromatic harmonica, my Brazilian beauty with an antique gold finish. I have gone a week without playing, and it was wonderful to feel the weight of the instrument in my hands. The Hering 64 is a great harmonica, but cranky (like most chromatics). The "64" in the name refers to the number of individual reeds in the instrument. If there are any saxophone players reading this, imagine if you had to deal with 64 reeds on your instrument instead of one! So chromatics are tough to tune, and there are many opportunities for a note to go dead - one bad reed equals one dead note.

The chromatic harmonica was quite popular for about 20 or 30 years, from the 1920's through the 1950's. Remember the Harmonicats? They played technically challenging music, but it sounds pretty corny to most of us today (I still like it - the interplay of the chromatic with the chord and bass harmonicas can be engaging). The chromatic is a complete instrument with a unique voice, and the jazz world began to notice. There are a number of excellent jazz harmonica players (Howard Levy is perhaps the most incredible, since he plays crazed jazz on the little diatonic harmonica). But the inventor of the jazz chromatic is Toots Thieleman. He is 83 years old and still globe-trotting, playing concerts in Mexico, Germany and Turkey this month. He pushes an amazing amount of emotion throught the harmonica - passion combined with technical expertise.

But what grabbed me was blues on the chromatic. And the king of blues chromatic was, is, and always will be George "Harmonica" Smith. George passed in the early 1980's and it is one of my great regrets that I never saw him perform. He did not cut many records. But the work he left behind is a mother lode of inspiration for blues harmonica players. He was a powerful, raucous player with a great musical vocabulary. I am one of the many harmonica players who are George Smith wanabees, copping his licks and singing style. Yeah, the Walters (Little and Big) are great, Cotton and Junior Wells are important, but I REALLY FEEL George Smith.

Saturday, May 07, 2005

Wild Illinois

Amanda and I have settled into Carbondale, IL after spending the past few days in the wilderness. There is no internet access in places like Golconda and Cave In Rock, which were two of the small villages we visited during our travels through the Southern Illinois outback. The Shawnee National Forest is a marvelous place, a real gem. The mix of Utah/Colorado-style rock formations with deep green forest is startling.

We visited the new Lincoln Library/Museum in Springfield IL on Wednesday. This must be America's top presidential library - full of high-tech wizardry (check out the "Ghost of the Library" show for an eerie experience). I am an Abe Lincoln fanatic and a history buff, so this was a great opportunity for me to gorge on Lincoln lore. My lovely daughter was less enthusiastic, however, so we moved on south.

The Ohio River valley region of Southern Illinois was "farmed out" in the early part of the 20th Century. The forests were mostly harvested, the soils sucked dry of nutrients. Crop production plummeted, then the Great Depression led to a complete collapse of crop prices. The local farmers dried up and blew away with the topsoil. FDR sent the Civilian Conservation Corps to the Ohio River region of Southern Illinois and the forests were re-planted. Many of the major recreational areas in the region were built by the CCC during the Great Depression.

On Thursday, we had breakfast at the Dari Barr restaurant in Golconda. This was a classic small town diner - full breakfast for $3.00, a smiling waitress that called me "hon," and a clientele that consisted of farmers and hunters. Wednesday was the last day of wild turkey hunting season in Illinois and we sat next to a couple of hunters in full camo (including hats). Their clever disguises did not work - they were moaning over their failure to bag a turkey. Turkeys are not geniuses, but they are elusive, apparently.

Of the four hikes we completed in the past two days, Amanda and I would award four stars to Bell Smith Springs. We hiked along a spring-fed creek into pretty rough terrain and arrived at a sizable rock overlooking a pool. And we sat, and listened to the world.

And as we drove out of the nature preserve, a large wild turkey strutted across the road in front of our car. He probably made it through the last day of hunting season, so he is safe for another year.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Abnormal in Normal (Illinois)

My 13-year old daughter and I are chillin' at the Signature Inn in Normal, Illinois. I can report that Normal is normal - bland, flat and juiced up with strip malls, fast food joints and lots of traffic. This is a place that has no sense of place. We stopped here to rest after our first day of a father-daughter vacation.

Amanda and I have concluded that we don't belong in Normal. I am listening to Amanda chatter at her laptop, which is playing an anime' DVD (in the original Japanese - she doesn't like the English translations). We had dinner at Bennigans, which was OK since they have cheesecake on the dessert menu. We cruised Illinois State University (which anchors the Bloomington/Normal "metroplex") and did not feel inspired. We are abnormal, so this is not our kinda place.

We did see some interesting stuff today. Outside of Joliet, on the road to Morris, we stopped at Lock 6 of the Illinois Michigan Canal. We had a nice hike and chatted with some fishermen that were hoping to catch a mess of crappies. The IM was completed in 1848 and operated until 1933. The folks that built it were immigrant workers - Irish, Chinese, probably some freed black folks. The 96-mile canal connected the Great Lakes to the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers - this was a major reason why Chicago became such a great hub of commerce.

We also stopped in Pontiac, Illinois - a lovely village with a grand old courthouse and a dead downtown. The two restaurants we visited in Pontiac were both closed - for good - with "for sale" signs on the windows. The notice in the window of the "Pub and Grub" read "To our dear customers - thanks for 18 great years. Due to the poor economy and our poor health, we must close effective immediately." Just another small business tragedy in America....

We are heading to Springfield in the morning and will visit the brand new Lincoln museum. I am pumped about this!

Sunday, May 01, 2005

Farewell, Bad Man Posted by Hello

Doug "Badman" Randall's Services

I am going to be out of town during Doug's funeral - I feel bad about this. Here are the details for any Chicago area friends/acquaintences of Doug Randall.

Funeral arrangements
Services for Doug Randall are as follows:

Wednesday May 4, from 3:30 - 7:00
Matz Funeral Home
3430 N. Central Ave.
2 Blocks south of Addison on the NW side

Doug ( The Bad Man ) Randall, of Big G and The Real Deal

Good bye, friend.

Who is Reginald Robinson?

Those of us who live in the Chicago area have heard rumors of a fellow that rose from the gawdawful Henry Horner Homes on the West Side to play, of all things, ragtime piano. Needless to say, this was not a path to riches and celebrity. Reginald Robinson became the Scott Joplin of our time, and nearly starved. He finally gave up, and turned his attention to making enough money through menial jobs to stay alive. Then he received a $500,000 "Genius Grant" from the MacArthur Foundation. last fall. God bless the MacArthur folks - they probably saved this man's art from disappearing. Howard Reich at the Chicago Tribune has written a wonderful story on Reginald.

Let's hope that Reginald continues on his current path - it would be encouraging to see ragtime break out of the museum and become a significant part of our musical landscape again.