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Sunday, May 20, 2007

Thursday Night In Fayetteville AR

I arrived in Fayetteville at about 5 PM on Thursday. The main street near the University of Arkansas campus is Dickson Street. Local people claim that Dickson Street is the center of dining and nightlife in Northwest Arkansas and I think that is correct. I met my clients and dined at Doe's Eat Place, a unique steak joint that also serves beef enchiladas as a house specialty. After a belly-busting meal, we headed to the Hog Haus microbrewery and enjoyed freshly-brewed beer. After the brew was consumed, my clients headed for home, and I headed for Jose's. Things got interesting.

Thursday night is Bike Night on Dickson Street, and there were about 200 or so big cruisers (Harleys, mostly) parked curbside and rolling up and down the strip. Most of the bikers were at Jose's Streetside, a patio and music stage just off Dickson. There was a pretty competent pair of guitarists - Darren and Russ - playing and singing blues and covers of various classic rock tunes (the Doors, Van Morrison, the usual suspects). Sitting in on harmonica was Bob Coleman, a photographer for the local newspaper who plays in a local blues band. He also owns a bad ass chopper. I had a nice chat with Bob; we moaned to each other regarding the sad state of the live music business and how things ain't what they used to be (true, but not an uplifting topic). I headed down the road to George's Majestic Lounge.

Now, the Majestic is a serious venue - big room, big stage, serious sound system, lots of lights. There was a three piece band (guitar, bass and some guy on a drum machine) playing Jimmy Buffet tunes and other "easy listening" music. The players were competent, but the sound reminded me of what you might hear in the lounge at a Holiday Inn in Paducah Kentucky - a bit too much cheese for my taste. The facility is awesome, however - the Majestic was named one of the best college bars in America by Playboy Magazine a few years ago. The joint is in its 80th year of operation!! The Majestic hosts the big acts that pass through - G-Love and Special Sauce, Blues Traveler, Tommy Castro's Blues Review (with Ronnie Baker Brooks and Magic Dick). Very cool!

After my short visit to the Majestic, I hit the hotel and crashed; got up and headed back to Chicago on Friday morning. It turned out to be an interesting weekend - more on this tomorrow....

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The Mighty Chromatic Harmonica

About two years ago, I posted an entry dedicated to the mighty chromatic harmonica. I continue to hold this instrument in high regard, and I have been playing it and thinking about it quite a lot recently.

The chromatic lends itself to flashy virtuosity. It lives up to the haromica's nickname - "mouth organ." The chromatic has all the notes in the scale (hence its name) and covers much of the same range as a standard keyboard (64 notes for the 16-hole, "kingsize" chromatic vs. 88 keys on a standard keyboard). You can play sustained chords on the chromatic; you can come up with wailin' split chords that sound a lot like a Hammond B3 in full cry. In the hands of a skilled player, the chrom can handle jazz, blues, soul, rock and classical. The tone of the instrument ranges from sweet to raucous. Listen to Stevie Wonder, followed by George "Harmonica" Smith and you will see what I mean.

I am on the road right now, attending to my real world livlihood. I have tucked my Hering 5264 in my rolling bag. Room # 716 at the Embassy Suites in Birmingham, Alabama was filled with the sound of Mr. G blowing the chromatic last night. No one tried to shoot me, thank goodness. My efforts on the chromatic are still pretty mediocre - I can play the blues in third position (key of D on the C chromatic), but that is about the extent of my skills. I haven't improved very much since I last wrote about the chromatic in May of 2005. I am stuck...

I am between flights now, heading to Fayetteville, Arkansas. I am hoping to find a jam session there - Fayetteville is the home of University of Arkansas, so I might get lucky tonight.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Early Departure - Michael Robinson

I didn't know Michael, but he had a strong reputation as a fine blues and soul guitarist in Chicago. He was alone in his apartment when he died and wasn't discovered for over a week. This aspect of his passing is quite depressing. When your friends or family go missing, check on them, folks.

Here is the obituary from the Gary IN paper:

Michael Robinson, 50, was standout guitarist

May 11, 2007

BY BOB KOSTANCZUK Post-Tribune staff writer

Michael Kevin Robinson was a guitarist who played for standouts in the fields of blues and rhythm and blues.

Robinson, 50, was found dead in his Gary apartment on Saturday. He is believed to have died on Wednesday, May 2, according to his family.

Robinson died of respiratory complications, said his sister, Edith Sheila Robinson-Elane of Chicago.

Known as a polished lead guitarist, Robinson toured extensively with Chicago blues queen Koko Taylor.

"There will never be another Michael Robinson," Taylor said in a prepared statement. "It was a real pleasure to have him as my bandleader and lead guitarist for six years."

Robinson's guitar skills were also utilized by other notables, including Buddy Guy, singer Deniece Williams, the Staple Singers and Earth, Wind & Fire.

"He was a really, really great guitar player," said close friend Ernest Hall of Columbia, Mo. "He was one of the best kept secrets in Gary."

Hall said he graduated with Robinson in 1975 from Emerson High School in Gary.

Robinson toured Europe with the Kinseys -- Gary's first family of blues.

Kenny Kinsey said Robinson was a rhythm guitarist for his clan, which encompassed Lester "Big Daddy" Kinsey and his sons, known as the Kinsey Report.

Now living in Merrillville, Kenny Kinsey remembered Robinson as a musician who studied a respected guitarist.

Robinson leaves behind sons Michael and Edward, and daughter Kawana.

A memorial service is scheduled for 11 a.m. Saturday at St. Luke Baptist Church, 7262 S. Coles Ave., Chicago.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

A Carey Bell Story

I am still focused on Carey Bell. I have had his tunes playing on my iPod all week and am impressed all over again with his adventurous work on the chromatic harmonica and his staccato attack on the diatonic harp. I also picked up the following Carey Bell story, posted to the Harp-L newsgroup by Steve Adams:

The last time I saw Carey about a year or so ago. After he had put on an awesome show, it was obvious he wasn't feeling too great, but he was his usual open, friendly, sunny self. After I had visited with him awhile, I told him I wanted to have my picture taken with him. His reply - "Why would you want to do that?" "Because you're the greatest harp player in the world," I responded (and, to me, he was). He looked at me and resolutely replied - "No, I'm not- but I will be, just you wait and see."

How cool is that? This man who had been an integral part of harp development and history since the fifties still had goals and ambitions for improvement, not to mention modesty.

The world has lost a magical harp player and a truly great man.

Steve Adams.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Carey Bell's Obituary

From today's Chicago Tribune:

Carey Bell: 1936 - 2007
Master of blues harmonica

Mississippi-born musician who came to Chicago in 1950s worked with legends such as the Hortons, Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon
By Trevor Jensen
Tribune staff reporter

May 8, 2007

Carey Bell, a Mississippi-born master of the blues harmonica who put a funky twist on lessons learned from legends such as Little Walter and Big Walter Horton, died of heart failure Sunday, May 6, according to Alligator Records.

Mr. Bell, 70, who had diabetes, had been in Kindred Hospital Chicago North for several days before his death, said Bruce Iglauer, president of Alligator, which recorded several of Mr. Bell's albums.

Mr. Bell was a bridge between the post World War II era musicians who created Chicago-style blues and the players of today, Iglauer said. Arriving in Chicago in September 1956 with his godfather, pianist Lovie Lee, Mr. Bell already was an accomplished harmonica player and immersed himself in the local blues scene. He picked up fresh licks from seminal players such as Sonny Boy Williamson II and Little Walter, whom he first saw at the Club Zanzibar on Chicago's West Side.

While playing within a traditional blues style, Mr. Bell's harmonica blew a "whooping flutter and a rapid upper register skitter," that pushed the instrument into fresh territory, said David Whiteis, author of "Chicago Blues: Portraits and Stories."

"Carey took the sounds and tone that was invented by the great players of the '40s and '50s and added a funkier rhythm [and] staccato lines," Iglauer said "He had a huge tone."

As a young player, Mr. Bell was taught to always complete one note before moving on to the next, Iglauer said. To that end, his playing was filled with long, sustained notes that bent and quivered.

"He had his own very individual, very personal style," said Chicago bluesman Billy Branch, who cites Mr. Bell as his main influence. "Carey's pretty much his own, I mean very unique."

Seeking more work in the 1960s, Mr. Bell took up the bass guitar and played with David "Honeyboy" Edwards, Eddie Taylor and Big Walter, according to a biography provided by Alligator. Back on the harp, he recorded for Chicago's Delmark Records, toured and recorded with Muddy Waters and was chosen by Willie Dixon to play with his Chicago Blues All-Stars in the 1970s.

Mr. Bell's virtuosity came through most clearly on the chromatic harmonica, although he was no less adept with the standard blues harp. "I asked him once, 'What do you play when you solo?'" Branch said. "He said, 'You play anything that fits.'"

In 1972 Mr. Bell recorded an album with Big Walter Horton that was Alligator's second release. In 1990 he played on "Harp Attack!" with James Cotton, Junior Wells and Branch. He recorded "Second Nature" in 2004 with his son Lurrie, an accomplished guitarist.

In 1998 Mr. Bell won a W.C. Handy Award for traditional blues male artist of the year.

Mr. Bell was born Carey Bell Harrington in Macon, Miss. He wanted to play saxophone as a boy but family finances limited him to a harmonica. By 13, he was playing paid gigs with his godfather, and at 19 he was off to Chicago, according to Alligator.

Mr. Bell had a low-key stage presence and his playing was more subtle than that of contemporaries such as James Cotton, Whiteis said. He was missing his left front tooth and couldn't play with a false tooth, Iglauer said. So he always appeared onstage with a gap in his grin. "I've hardly ever seen a musician get as much joy out of playing music," Iglauer said.

"He was funny, he'd crack on you," Branch said. "I'd see him and he'd say, 'When you going to learn to play that damn thing?' or, 'You ready to get your head cut" -- getting your "head cut" being musician's lingo for getting blown offstage.

Branch brought his harmonica when he visited Mr. Bell in the hospital Friday night. Mr. Bell was drowsy but perked up when he heard the music, Branch said.

"I did one of his signature licks, and he looked straight at me, like to say, 'You're stealing my stuff again,'" Branch said.

Mr. Bell was married at least twice and is survived by 10 children, Iglauer said. Further family information was not available.

Services were being arranged.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Carey Bell - Correction

This note came from my friend and harmonica freak extreme, "Big Jim" Themelis:

Just to correct your blog Carey Bell had like 9 or 10 solo albums before Alligator. Hope to see you soon. Jim

Sad, Sad Day - Carey Bell Has Sailed Away

I just got the news from Scott Dirks that Carey Bell passed away yesterday - heart failure, probably due to diabetes. Carey was part of the first "post Walter generation" (I am referring to the two Walters - Little Walter Jacobs and Big Walter Horton). Carey was tied in with Junior Wells and James Cotton; only Cotton survives now.

Carey Bell Harrington and I share a birthday - November 14 - but he was born in 1936 (Mr. G is much younger, thank you). He left Macon, Mississippi for Chicago in September 1956. As a young harmonica player, Carey hung out with Little Walter, Rice Miller (Sonny Boy Williamson II) and especially Big Walter Horton. Carey and Big Walter were very tight - Carey taught himself how to play bass guitar so he could play in Big Walter's band. The two harp players also cut a record together in 1972 (on Alligator, the second release by the blues label). After playing bass for several years with folks like Hound Dog Taylor and Johnny Young, Carey switched back to the harmonica exclusively in 1968. He sat in the harmonica chair for Muddy Waters in the early 1970's and ended up on a couple of Muddy's records. He also played harp in Willie Dixon's Chicago Blues All-Stars band in the 1970's. Carey's career as a recorded band leader didn't really kick off until 1995 when he released his first full-length recording as a solo artist ("Deep Down" on Aligator Records).

Carey Bell was a senior member of a great multi-generational blues clan, the Bell/Harrington family. Blues guitarist superstar Eddy "the Chief" Clearwater is Carey's cousin, the great pianist, Lovie Lee, was Carey's godfather. Most of Carey's ten kids play the blues, I think - the best-known is one of my musical heroes, Mr. Lurrie Bell (see my recent entry about Lurrie). Lurrie continues to be recipient of the slings and arrows of bad fortune - his wife, Susan Greenberg, recently passed away, and now his father is gone, too. Carey and Lurrie played together from time to time - Delmark Records recently released a new DVD of a live performance of the father-son duo at Rosa's Lounge in Chicago.

It hurts to lose these harmonica blues giants - Snooky Pryor last year, now Carey. All of the Mississippi Saxophone fraternity is in mourning.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Magic Slim & the Teardrops at Bill's Blues Bar - 5/5/07

Magic Slim doesn't hit Chicago much these days. He moved to Lincoln, Nebraska a few years ago and is not a regular part of the Chicago scene any more. "Why on earth would anyone trade Chicago for Lincoln, Nebraska?" you may be wondering. Believe it or not, Lincoln is a terrific place. I have been to Lincoln and it is a college town (University of Nebraska) and it is home to one of the finest blues clubs in the world - the Zoo Bar. Because of the Zoo, many bluesmen from around the nation put Lincoln on their itinerary when running cross country tours (Lincoln is right off of Interstate 80, 570 miles from Chicago). Slim decided he liked the town and the club, so he shifted his base.

Magic Slim's "birth name" is Morris Holt. He is one of the last of the Delta-to-Chicago blues guys - born in 1937, moved to Chicago in 1955, came into the blues scene as a leader in 1967. When he was a young man, he was tall and slender - he was given the nickname "Magic Slim" by the legendary Magic Sam (Slim used to play bass in Magic Sam's group). Well, Magic Slim is still tall - I would estimate six foot seven inches - but he isn't slender anymore. He is a big fella - somewhere over 300 pounds, I think. This makes him an imposing presence on the bandstand. He occassionally channels Howlin' Wolf - the size, the feral noises, the whole deal. It is pretty interesting to watch.

I have the good fortune to be acquainted with Jon McDonald, one of the Teardrops. Jon plays rhythm guitar behind Slim and acts as road manager (announces the star, leads the band for a few tunes before Slim gets up to play, sells the CD's during breaks, etc.). Jon is a fabulous guitarist - he played a show with the Mystery Band last summer. He is also a very intelligent person, and deeply into the blues and all of its related musical forms. He, too, is a former Chicagoan - Jon recently headed west and now lives near Palm Springs CA. It was great to see Jon again. He seems very dedicated to Slim.

Magic Slim plays "meat and potatoes" blues - hard-grooving shuffles, blues-flavored funk and slow blues grinders. Most of his tunes are in the keys of A or E. His singing voice is powerful even though he is about 70 years old. Slim's musical range is limited, but within that range, he speaks volumes. I can't think of anyone that is doing a better job of laying down that post-WWII electric Chicago blues. He gets the crowd involved - Bill's Blues was full on Saturday and there was dancing and shouting going on. Magic Slim and the Teardrops is real and pure - a must-see for all people interested in American roots music.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Anthony (Tony) Palmer - The Fret Burner

Anthony Palmer is an astounding guitarist. He has an incredible memory for music, he has blistering technique, he pours all the love, hate, blood and sweat of human existance through his guitar and amp into the world. His nickname (bestowed by Jimmy Burns) is "the Fret Burner."

If there was true justice in the world, Tony would be rich and famous. But he doesn't seem to be the least bit disappointed with the outcome of his efforts. Mr. Palmer is proud to be a sideman; he doesn't lead a band and he doesn't stand up and sing (even though he possesses a fine voice). He supports Jimmy Burns, Katherine Davis, Matt Skoller, Byther Smith and even me, Mr. G. In the past, Tony supported Otis Rush, Joanna Connor, Sugar Blue and Bobby Rush. Tony has said to me, "I want to build a platform for the front guy. I want to lift him up and make things better." This type of unselfish approach isn't common with musicians that have Tony's skills and creativity. So Tony gets a lot of work - a typical week for him could include 6 or even 7 gigs. You can get a great example of Tony Palmer's work by picking up a copy of the Jimmy Burns Band CD/DVD - "Live at B.L.U.E.S." It is a fine piece of work - Jimmy was fabulous, and Tony was in top form.

Tony is a Chicago guy, West Side. He came up with cats like Michael Coleman and Melvin Taylor. He has been on the road for much of his adult life - Europe, Asia, all over the US and Canada. He isn't traveling as much as he used to - his gigs are mostly in the Chicago area. And he has settled in Evanston IL - he is my neighbor, I am proud to say.

Try to get out to see Tony Palmer. He will be playing with Jimmy Burns at the Harlem Avenue Lounge in Berwyn on May 19, and he will be playing with me in the Mystery Band at the Morseland Cafe in Chicago on May 26.