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Sunday, September 08, 2013

James Cotton at SPACE in Evanston IL

First of all, I have to thank the founders of SPACE - the Society for the Preservation for Arts and Culture in Evanston.  Stuart Rosenberg, Craig Golden, Dave Specter and Steve Schwartz.  The combination of Union Pizzeria and SPACE has created a destination dining and entertainment landmark within walking distance of my house.  This is the best thing to happen to the Evanston entertainment scene since Bill's Blues closed - maybe since Amazingrace closed.  I can also have a couple of beers and walk it off after the show on my way home - what's not to like?

James Cotton came to SPACE for the first time last night - that is a picture of him in action last night at the top of this post.  Mr. Cotton is now 78 years old - a contemporary of Buddy Guy, part of the "second great blues generation" that came up to Chicago from the Delta in the 1950's.  Mr. Cotton learned his craft with Sonny Boy Williamson, Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters.  He cut his first records at Sun Records in Memphis when he was 15 years old.  In 1954, Muddy Waters heard him in Memphis and hired him to replace Junior Wells, who had abruptly quit Muddy's band.  So Mr. Cotton ended up in Chicago.

James Cotton was a cross-over blues artist.  He became "Mr. Superharp" and played big rock venues in the late 1960's through the 1970's.  Mr. Cotton served as mentor for many aspiring harmonica players; his furious licks and showmanship were much imitated, but never duplicated, by a gang of younger folks.  I have copped Cotton's licks myself, listening to his records over and over with my harp at my lips.  He is a titan of the tin sandwich.  I was excited to see him in my town - Mr. Cotton played Bill's Blues around 2004 or so, but he doesn't play the suburbs of Chicago much.

Mr. Cotton's voice is gone, but he still is a crazed monster on the harmonica.  His joy and enthusiasm have survived his voice.  He plays seated now (like B.B. King and other aging giants of the blues), but he runs the band and projects charisma and showmanship.  When a blues singer loses his voice yet still projects heart and power, you know you are in the presence of greatness.

The tunes that the band played were pretty predictable - "That's All Right" by Jimmy Rogers, "Honest I Do" by Jimmy Reed," "Rocket 88," which was a big hit for Cotton, and other chestnuts.  The beauty of blues music is in the depth, not the "newness," of the music.   Mr. Cotton brings that depth.

The sound man was having trouble getting the balance right between the harmonica, the vocals and the guitar/bass/drum unit.  Volume crept up through the evening until it became a crushing wall of pain by the end of the set.  SPACE is a mid-sized venue.  I don't understand why folks don't respect the size of the joint and amplify/mix accordingly.  This is not meant as a criticism of the sound man, by the way - sound engineers have the most thankless job on the planet, and their skills are underappreciated.  Everyone has an opinion about the sound, and the sound engineer has to listen first to the venue management and the artists.  I know that a sound engineer often gets many conflicting instructions.  And artists often do unpredictable things in a performance; a good mix can turn bad in a heartbeat due to those surprises.

My friend Tom Holland has been Mr. Cotton's guitar player for almost 10 years now.  Not only is this a great gig that offers ample opportunity for exposure and education, it has provided Tom with multiple "reps" so his chops are sharp as a razor these days.  Tom is very confident on stage, and carried the band as the only guitarist - and no keyboard player, either.  I have played a number of gigs with Tom back when I had my own little blues band, and I am really happy for him.  It is great to see a young guy carry the torch and grow as an artist.

Harp man Matt Skoller and guitarist Lurrie Bell opened for the Cotton band.  They warmed up the crowd and returned to the stage at the end of Mr. Cotton's set to jam.  James Cotton knew Lurrie and his dad, stand-out harmonica star Cary Bell, from the Chicago days.  And Mr. Cotton served as mentor to Matt Skoller.  Topping out the evening was Dave Specter taking the stage to play on "Black Night," the old Charles Brown standard that has been covered by everyone from Dr. John to Bobby Blue Bland.  It was good to see the SPACE founder cutting loose.

Since Mr. Cotton can't sing anymore, Darrell Nulisch sat next to him and filled that role.  Darrell has a solid, soulful voice and can mine the tunes for the emotion within them.  He is also a great harp player, so there were three harmonica guys (Cotton, Skoller and Nulisch) blowing on the stage at one point -   not something you see very often, and for good reason. I love the harmonica, but three guys showboating at the high-end of the harp at the same time can be very painful to the sensitive listener.  But, hey, it was still an awesome celebration of Cotton and his legacy.  And these three guys are all killer harp blowers, now doubt about it.

The festivities wound to a close at a respectable hour (11-ish) and I walked off my Guinness on the way home.  Thank you, SPACE!

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