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Sunday, December 31, 2006

Duke's Bar

The Mystery Band played at Duke's Bar last night. The crowd was sparse; I guess everyone is saving their partying energy for New Year's Eve. Highway RickEY stopped by and sat in on drums for a few numbers. Big Alex also came out - he lives in the neignborhood. We had a "small world" moment - the Mystery Band's sax player, Mike Finnerty, was Big Alex's saxophone teacher in high school. Big Alex dropped the sax in favor of the harmonica.

Duke's Bar has an interesting vibe. It is a smallish joint with a long bar and a small side room where the musicians perform. This bar has been a mainstay on Glenwood Avenue in Rogers Park (next to the El tracks) since 1968. In years past, Duke's was a place for hard-core drinkers and petty criminals (drug dealers, second story men, pimps and their women). In September of 2005, the joint was purchased by Neil Lifton and his wife, Mary. Neil is a New Yorker who plays a little electric guitar. He has run out the sketchy characters and Duke's is a bit more civil. I like Neil and Duke's is a solid Chicago neighborhood tavern.

I am sure this will be my last post of 2006. It has been a good year for Mr. G personally, but a very crappy year for the larger world. I'm glad to have 2006 in the rear view mirror.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Katherine Davis at Katerina's in Chicago - 12/26/06

Katherine Davis is one of Chicago's finest blues singers. Her voice is fabulous, but it the soul behind the voice that is the real story. Here is a link to Katherine's web site - check it out to get her complete back story.

Katherine was the headliner at Katerina's last Tuesday. She had a couple of major talents helping her that evening. Erwin Helfer was at the grand piano and the under-appreciated Skinny Williams was blowing the saxophone.

Katherine covers the entire history and range of blues music. She can belt out the classic post-war Chicago blues anthems; she also sings jazz and will go way back to pull out a chestnut like "The Dark Town Strutters Ball." She put her entire range on display during the set I caught at Katerina's. Her voice pours out and it is easy to hear the opera training that she received in her younger days. Her stage presence is remarkable - she connects with her audience in a very personal way. And she is back performing in spite of her grief over the recent loss of her husband, Caleb Dube (see the September 27, 2006 entry in this blog for more on Caleb). Perhaps her singing is part of her journey through the grief.

Erwin Helfer is carrying the flame of blues and boogie piano, the flame created by Sunnyland Slim, Jimmy Yancy, Otis Spann, "Cripple" Clarence Lofton and Speckled Red. Erwin is a conservator, but he makes these classic styles his own through his joyful drive and variations on the old riffs and themes. He carries his rhythm section with him - his rock-steady left hand that lays down the bass and the beat better than most bass-drum combos on the planet. Erwin and Katherine have worked together often; there was a lot of affection between these two fine musicians during the performance at Katerina's.

I had never heard Skinny Willams play before last Tuesday. He is a killer tenor man! His tone reminded me of Ben Webster, but he was ripping out the R&B and funk licks like a combination of Eddie Harris and Lennie Pickett. Skinny and Erwin tossed off a great version of "Chicken Shack" during their set.

Katherine's daughter was in attendence for her mother's gig. She was with a tall, stately gentleman who was invited to the bandstand to play piano and sing. I didn't catch the guy's full name (last name was Dunlap, I believe); he is a gospel artist in Chicago and his voice was huge when he sang the blues. I am always amazed at the quantity and quality of anonymous musical talent in the great city of Chicago.

Katherine said she might show up at the Mystery Band gig at Duke's tonight. Hope she makes it....

Monday, December 25, 2006

We Lost The Godfather

James Brown crossed over at 1:45 AM this Christmas morning. I am therefore listening to old skool JB this morning instead of Christmas carols.

Some musicians change everything. James Brown was one of those musicians. He grabbed lots of people, black and white. I remember hearing him back in my junior high school when I was all of 13 years old. We had no black people at John Muir Junior High - San Leandro, California was mostly white, with some Asian and Mexican folks. There was a creek on the northern edge of town - on the other side of that creek was Oakland, and an all-black neighborhood. So I grew up in the tail-end of the segregated era (San Leandro is nicely integrated now). Occassionally, the kids on the opposite sides of the creek would mix. That is where I first heard James Brown's music. James Brown was the entry-point for me into what I consider the best parts of American culture - I explored all the Motown artists, Ray Charles, and kept heading back in time, eventually finding Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, J.J Johnson, Count Basie, Charles Mingus, Duke Ellington, Muddy Waters, Junior Wells, B.B. King and dozens of others. I also soaked up the music generated by the "offspring of JB" - Sly Stone, Tower of Power, Kool and the Gang, Parliament/Funkadelic, and on and on.

James Brown was the wellspring. He invented so much; he is much imitated, never equaled. And he is another American success story - abandoned by his parents at the age of 4, raised (and ignored) by relatives, on the streets of Augusta GA at a very tender age - and yet, he found his talent and put it out in the world for everyone to see and hear.
In his own way, he brought people together.
"Long hair hippies and Afro blacks. They all get together across the tracks and they party. On the good foot."

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Mr. G and the Mystery Band - New Years Gigs

The Mystery Band is getting busy as we head into 2007! As I posted earlier this month, on Saturday December 30, Mr. G and the Mystery Band will be back at Duke's Bar in Rogers Park (6920 North Glenwood, Chicago IL, 773 764 2826). Music will start around 9:30 - NO COVER!! This version of the Mystery Band is the jazz gang - it includes Mike Finnerty on tenor sax, Andy Meecham on guitar, Mike Linn on drums and Mike Azzi on bass. As always, Mr. G will toot the harmonica and howl at the moon. Come on out for an early New Year's party!

On Friday, January 5 2007, the Mystery Band will return to Bill's Blues Bar (1029 Davis Street, Evanston IL 847-424-9800, I am still trying to line up the personnel for this gig - Twist Turner will be there, pounding on the drums. The rest of the band's make up is a Mystery (ahem). But I will post the names on this space once folks call me back to confirm.

By the way, the Mystery Band is building an official website. It isn't much to look at yet, but it will improve over time. Here is the link:

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Four Departures and a Return

It Has Been a Sad, Sad Month So Far
Homesick James Passes: Chicago blues legend Homesick James Williamson passed away Wednesday, December 13, at 11:15pm. He was in his mid-90s, but his own accounts of his age varied. He passed away resting comfortably in his home in Springfield, Missouri. Funeral arrangements will be made by his family, and the funeral will take place on Saturday, December 23 in Covington, Tennessee. Williamson was playing guitar at age ten and soon ran away from his Tennessee home to play at fish fries and dances. His travels took the him through Mississippi and North Carolina during the 1920s, where he crossed paths with Yank Rachell, Sleepy John Estes, Blind Boy Fuller, and Big Joe Williams. Settling in Chicago during the 1930s, Williamson played local clubs and recorded for RCA Victor in 1937. Williamson made some of his finest recordings in 1952-53 for Art Sheridan's Chance Records (including the classic "Homesick" that gave him his enduring stage name). James also worked extensively as a sideman, backing harp great Sonny Boy Williamson in 1945 at a Chicago gin joint called the Purple Cat and during the 1950s with his cousin, slide master Elmore James (to whom Homesick is stylistically indebted). He also recorded with James during the 1950s. Homesick's own output included some singles for Colt and USA in 1962, a fine 1964 album for Prestige, and four tracks on a Vanguard anthology in 1965. He also recorded a CD for Michael Frank's Earwig Records around 1994, "Goin' Back in the Times." I think there were other CD's in the 1990's, but I don't have a full discography.

Ahmet Ertegun Passes: Ahmet Ertegun, founder and A&R man for Atlantic Records, passed in New York City on December 14 at age 83. He and his label were singlehandedly responsible for recording some of the greatest stars of the blues, such as Ray Charles, Ruth Brown, Big Joe Turner, and LaVern Baker. He also was a giant in the world of soul and rock, signing acts ranging from Aretha Franklin to Led Zeppelin. Here is a link to his New York Times obituary.

Tina Mayfield Passes: Word just came in that Tina Mayfield passed away this week. Tina was the wife of Percy Mayfield, and also looked after Lowell Fulson after Lowell's wife Sadie passed on. Tina was very outgoing and supportive of the blues and remained an easily accessible public figure, especially in California, until the last few years when cancer took its toll on her health.

Jay McShann Passes: Blues and jazz piano legend JayMcShann passed away on December 7, 2006. He was 90 years old. Jay was famous for hiring a young alto saxophonist to play in his Kansas City-based big band. The kid's name was Charlie Parker.

The Return of Sugar Blue: A blues crony of mine spotted a very rare sight in Chicago this past weekend. Sugar Blue (real name - James Whiting) was in attendance at Rosa's Lounge last Saturday night celebrating his birthday. He sat in with Jimmy Johnson, who was booked for the gig that night. Sugar Blue is a unique harmonica player - he is a speed demon with loads of technique. He now resides in Europe. Sugar Blue had his 15 minutes of international fame when he was a sideman for the Rolling Stones (that's Sugar blowing the harp on the Stones' tune "Miss You."). Sugar Blue is in Chicago for a week to record a new self-produced CD. To keep track of Mr. Blue's travels go to or

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Mr. G and the Mystery Band December Gigs - In Chicagoland

'Tis the season for the Mystery Band Holiday Parties! We have a couple of biggies coming up!

Mr. G and the Mystery Band will be rockin' the house at Bill's Blues Bar (1029 Davis Street, Evanston IL 847-424-9800, on Saturday December 16. Music starts at around 9 PM; the Mystery Band will be sharing the stage with Two for the Blues, another great local blues band. This version of the Mystery Band includes some of Mr. G's favorite professionals - Anthony Palmer on guitar, Twist Turner on drums, Shoji Naito on guitar and E.G. McDaniel on bass. Mr. G will blow the harp and sing. Come on out and celebrate your favorite holiday (Christmas, Hannukah, Kwanzaa, Whatever!).

On Saturday December 30, Mr. G and the Mystery Band will be back at Duke's Bar in Rogers Park (6920 North Glenwood, Chicago IL, 773 764 2826). Music will start around 9:30 - NO COVER!! This version of the Mystery Band is the jazz gang - it includes Mike Finnerty on Tenor sax, Andy Meecham on guitar, Mike Linn on drums and Mike Azzi on bass. As always, Mr. G will toot the harmonica and howl at the moon. Come on out for an early New Year's party!

These will be the last Mystery Band Shows of 2006!! Don't miss 'em!!

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Losses and Eroded Defenses

Hell, yes, I am aging - 52 years old now. It doesn't sound that old, and it isn't, but I can feel the small changes. I feel losses. My defenses are eroding. I am more exposed to the force of my own emotions, and to the grind of daily events.

Joe Jackson of Chicago was angry. He had apparently invented a new toilet for use in trucks - no doubt a welcome innovation for the nation's long-haul truckers. Well, Mr. Jackson felt cheated - I guess he lost a patent lawsuit, but the specifics behind his rage have not been made public. So yesterday afternoon, Mr. Jackson went to 500 W. Monroe Street, the CitiCorp Center and location of a main commuter rail station in Chicago. He held a security guard at gunpoint and went up to the 38th floor to the law offices of Wood, Phillips, Katz, Clark & Mortimer. He sought out Michael R. McKenna, a successful patent attorney. He chained the law office doors behind him. He began shooting. Mr. McKenna died; so did two other men. And the Chicago SWAT team took out Mr. Jackson. Four dead people in a calm and orderly law office in a Class A office tower just west of Chicago's Loop. The train station was shut down, the skyscraper was evacuated. There was no defense; random insanity can reach out and grab anyone. Then the station re-opened two hours after the killings, and the mundane daily grind resumed.

The past year has contained many losses. We lost two blues harmonica greats in 2006 – Sam Myers and Snooky Pryor both died. We lost several other blues greats during the year – Robert Lockwood Jr., Ruth Brown, Etta Baker, Floyd Dixon, Jessie Mae Hemphill, Willie Kent, Henry Townsend, and the great Austin TX blues club owner, Clifford Antone. If you are unfamiliar with these artists, do yourself a favor and buy some of their music.

It has been wicked cold in Chicago for the past week - in the single digits with a nasty wind. My defenses have eroded - the cold hurts a little more this year than it did last year. I sometimes get mugged by a memory and choke up. I miss people have been gone for a long time. I was never a tough guy. As I age, this fact becomes more apparent.