Your Complete Guide to the Chicago Blues Scene
Live at Rosa’s Lounge
By Rex Bartholomew
Chicago’s Omar Coleman does not let the grass grow under his feet – he has been gigging out regularly since last year’s release of his Delmark Records debut, Born and Raised, and the label has just released his killer follow-up, Live at Rosa’s Lounge. This was a wise move, as this disc is an impressive piece of work and it helps listeners appreciate that Coleman is a righteous stage performer too.
Omar was indeed born and raised on the West Side of Chicago, and this singer/songwriter and harmonica ace comes to the stage influenced by blues luminaries such as Bobby Rush, Little Walter, Sugar Blue, Al Green and the tremendous Junior Wells. Rosa’s Lounge is a product of the Windy City too, and since 1984 this neighborhood blues joint on the north side of town has provided a cool place for discerning listeners to soak up quality blues jams. By the way, the owner of Rosa’s moved from Italy to Chicago after meeting Junior Wells, which is a neat connection between the club and Mr. Coleman!
Live at Rosa’s Lounge is an hour-long set with twelve songs (on ten tracks), and Steve Wagner and Omar produced this project. On stage were Coleman on vocals and harp, Dave Forte and Ari Seder trading off on bass, Pete Galanis on the guitar, Neal O’Hara behind the keyboards, and Marty Binder on the skins. The mix of tunes is equally split between originals and covers, and Omar made all of them his own with his unique infusion of chops and passion.
The sets starts off with the classic “Snatch it Back and Hold It,” a sure-fire winner from Junior Wells’ 1965 debut album, Hoodoo Man Blues. This turns out to be a tight funk fest with Forte, Binder and O’Hara holding down the bottom end as Coleman’s harmonica takes the intro. When Omar starts singing his voice is nothing but soulful, and his timing and stage presence are amazing. The other half of this track is Johnnie Taylor’s “Wall to Wall,” which is beefier than the original but not over the top (a dangerous temptation, to be sure) and Galanis tastefully pops out the syncopated guitar line to give this tune a James Brown feel. Next up is a piano and guitar driven take of Willie Dixon’s “I’m Ready” that includes a wonderful solo from O’Hara.
Then Coleman takes the opportunity to let the crowd know where he came from and where he stands with “Born and Raised.” This is infectious high-energy funky blues and it features a natural-sounding harp solo that contrasts well with the heavily processed guitar and popping bass line. This is the first of the five original songs that Omar sandwiches between the covers tunes that start and finish the disc. All of the original tunes are well-written and performed with skill so they hold their own with the more familiar blues favorites on the set list. The originals cover a lot of ground and they include: straight-up rock with “Slow Down Baby,” the jazzy blues of “Raspberry Wine,” and the standout “One Request,” a heartfelt soul ballad.
The hour goes by too quickly, and before the listener knows it the band finishes the show with a few more crowd-pleasing blues classics. Rufus Thomas’ “Give Me the Green Light” has a healthy portion of organ from Neal accompanied by a rock solid beat from Marty, and Omar howls out the lyrics convincingly as he delivers this song to a new generation of aficionados who might not be familiar with the funky Stax original. Then Coleman calls on his Junior Wells side one more time for the closer, and “Two Headed Woman” delivers the goods. This song is a fast tempo countrified romp, and Pete does his best Albert Lee chicken picking, which is more than respectable. This is a sweet ending to a very cool album!
As far as production goes, Steve Wagner did his share of magic to put together a very sharp live disc. The recording is clear and well-mixed with an excellent balance between the vocals and instruments. One downside with placing the microphones to get such an accurate musical recording is that there is not much in the way of crowd noise and reaction, but this was the best way to get it done right. This album was recorded from three different performances (hence the two bassists), but it is very hard to hear any differences in the sound of the band from one song to another. All in all, this is a wonderful representation of Coleman’s, skill, emotion, and work ethic, and the listener will be pleased.
Omar Coleman should be proud of the work that he and his band put in for Live at Rosa’s Lounge, and this album definitely has a shot at being the best live album of the year. Be sure to head over to www.omarcoleman.com to find his gig schedule, and if you are going to be in the Windy City this summer you are in luck, as he has plenty of shows coming up. If you will not be in town, this album would be a great substitute as it really captures what Omar is all about!