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CD REVIEW -- Rockwell Avenue Blues Band
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Back To Chicago

Delmark Records 

Rockwell Ave. Blues Band CD

By Brian K. Read

Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”        --- Ralph Waldo Emerson


There are paths, many paths.  Paths to the truth, paths to ruin.  Paths of success, paths of darkness.  We all choose different paths in our lives, but for the Rockwell Avenue Blues Band, the path is a good one: Back To Chicago. The band’s new Delmark release, a “true record,” is all about finding the sweet path home.


For Steve Freund, Tad Robinson, Ken Saydak, Harlan Terson and Marty Binder, that path brings back some blues sounds distinctly Chicago, with a little flavor of travels out West, and a few unique twists and turns.  The Rockwell Avenue Blues band delivers on all fronts, forging solid grooves, a top notch, tight sound, and a mind-blowing 70+ minutes of music on 15 cuts!


I was hooked my first step down the path, with the hard driving “Blues For Hard Times,” Tad Robinson’s opening track, which sets the mood for this collection of classic Chicago blues grooves.  Steve Freund’s guitar lays down the hook, then a mean solo that dovetails into another one from Ken Saydak on the keys, as Robinson’s soulful voice and harp playing soars above the band’s chunky beat.  “Sometimes lucky breaks come out of the blue, even in hard times!”  The path beckons: cue the music, sit back and enjoy the ride!


Looking back along the path, this band has roots in lauded Chicago groups gone by, like Big Shoulders or The Fabulous Fishheads; bands that shook Chicago for years during the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s.  These guys all went different ways at some point, but now are reveling in being back home.   It was here for years they also worked as sidemen for artists like Sunnyland Slim, Big Walter Horton, Lonnie Brooks, Buddy Guy and many other old school champions of the blues, not to mention endless hours of session work. Cutting chops, feeling the bends and the slides, just like they learned along life’s’ journey.       


Guitarist Freund follows the opener with a boogie in the distinctly Canned Heat mode.  “I like to play in the sunshine, it soothes my aches and pains.  Right now it’s pouring in Chicago, guess I’ll boogie in the rain.”  The West Coast, where he now calls home, may have thinned his blood a little, but not his chops. “Boogie In The Rain” is a well-soaked song that will get you up and shaking like a big wet dog!


Keyboardist Ken Saydak is a funny guy.  Considering some of the dues he’s paid, that sense of humor is a well deserved one, and it brings a dark, funny magic to his lyrics.  Somewhere between the syncopation of Joni Mitchell, and the raw, rambling Tom Waits, Saydak’s voice and patterns create some nice hills and bumps along the path.


“That Face” is about things we just can’t help, whether good or bad, happy, sad, or in between.  Saydak follows up with “Chariot Gate,” about acting the fool, playing the clown, then getting his life all turned around.  Perhaps it’s the usual path for most of us, only Saydak is able to tell it in a funny way that sticks.  Besides blues, Chicago is still known as a top-rate town for comedy, and he continues what many of the early blues artists entertained crowds best with for years -- a blues that makes you both laugh and cry.


          Rockwell Avenue is a reference to the old Delmark Studios location, where these guys all came to play a helluva lot of blues back in the day.   This is a recording born of respect, friendship over the years, and a love for each other as well as the music.  While each artist has been away, been back, been away again off and on for a lot of years, this reunion has been a long time coming, and the music reflects all of the energy of old friends enjoying the energy of getting back together.


Speaking of Delmark, it’s also the 65th Anniversary of the venerable label, one that blues legend Bob Koester has only recently sold, after over half a century of recording some of the biggest names in blues and jazz.  Bob will be honored at this year’s Chicago Blues Festival, and the Rockwell Avenue Blues Band will be a part of the celebration.


Great recordings from Delmark have a distinctive, live-in-the-studio sound, and it is in no small part because of producer Dick Shurman, and recording engineer Steve Wagner, both veterans of the Delmark blueprint.  This is a smooth, natural record with a feel of being in the same room, experiencing the same love and respect for the music as the musicians and the studio crew. 


Marty Binder is the proverbial glue holding this band together, a drummer with a great touch and full control of the rhythms that drive each tune.  Whether a gospel feel, on “We Believe,” a merengue groove on “Stranger Blues,” or the rolling shuffle of “For A Reason,” Binder’s surefooted, solid drumming suits everything to a proverbial “T.”


And what of storied bassist Harlan Terson, “the blues person?”  Harlan’s bass is sewn into the pocket like a Levi’s logo, after playing with just about everyone and everywhere at one time or another.  If you have heard WXRT’s classic recording of Lonnie Brooks’ rendition of “Sweet Home Chicago,” from the early days of Chicagofest on Navy Pier in the late ‘70s, then you’ve heard Harlan. And also Ken Saydak on keys; both contributed to this exciting live track.  Harlan has moved along a path sublime, from Kingston Mines, B.L.U.E.S, Rosa’s Lounge, SPACE and all points in between.  With the Rockwell Avenue Blues Band, he and Marty Binder lock things up nice and tight.  


“Rich Man” is Robinson’s crooning ballad, a beautiful one that blends some falsetto with staccato piano and gently distorted guitar.  It’s a deserved nod to the cousin of the blues, gospel, and it rises and falls like a great hymn.  “Hey Big Bill” has Freund paying stylistic respects to Big Bill Broonzy, and shared roots with The Old Town School Of Folk Music, which Broonzy helped put on the map during the folk revival of the 1960s. 


The theme from Dragnet opens Saydak’s “Love Police,” a nice little lump-de-lump with classic organ fills and guitar stabs. “Back To Chicago” shows the soul-blues side of the band, a Hammond B3 sound working the magic, and another funky little guitar riff that morphs into a jazzy, thoughtfully phrased solo by Freund.  “Back to Chicago, back to the road we know.”


Full disclosure: back when Steve Freund was working with Sunnyland Slim, at Lilly’s on Lincoln, I lived right around the corner, and was front and center at a lot of their shows.  Steve was one of the first guys to let me sit in with the band, and it was the thrill of a lifetime to play with a legend like Sunnyland, along with Sam Burkhardt on sax, Robert Stroger on bass, and Robert Covington on drums.  On the classic slow blues tune, “Have You Ever Told Yourself A Lie,” Sunnyland comes back to life in Freund’s singing, along with Saydak’s back alley bar room piano playing, and it is one of the highlights of the recording.


“No usable skills, no visible means…I’ve been commanded to dream.”  Ken Saydak caps the record with “Dream,” a sleepy confessional taking us down a river, which really is just another path, only deeper and wider, and wetter, and full of fish.  “I don’t need to be sleeping to dream.”  That could be the very motto of “Back To Chicago,” by the Rockwell Avenue Blues Band.  Getting all of these guys together, finally, for a record on Delmark is truly a dream come true.  Pick up a CD, and pop it into the player on your way downtown to see them for Blues Fest!

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