Your Complete Guide to the Chicago Blues Scene
Chicago is known around the world as the hometown of President Obama, Michael Jordan, The World Champion Chicago Cubs, Al Capone and deep dish pizza. The Windy City currently ranks as the gun violence capital of the U.S. – nothing to be proud of. But one thing that Chicago can always take pride in is its musical legacy, especially quality female singers, such as legendary voices like Mahalia Jackson, Minnie Riperton, Mavis Staples and Koko Taylor. All of them are distinctive and classic in their own way.
From that Hall of Fame roster, local blues singer Sharon Lewis takes after Taylor the most. Born and bred in Ft. Worth, Texas Lewis' career began in Chicago in 1993 with the band Under The Gun. She then came to some prominence as a featured performer with Dave Specter in concert and on his Live In Chicago album. Lewis made her recorded debut as a leader with her band Texas Fire in 2011 on the Delmark Records release, The Real Deal. Since then, she has kept paying her dues with scores of regular gigs at clubs favored by tourists and local blues lovers alike such as Kingston Mines and Harlem Avenue Lounge. More recently the scope has turned international with tours to Europe to spread the news that Chicago blues is still vital and relevant.
Now Lewis is back with her latest Delmark release, Grown Ass Woman sporting a title that is sure to get attention with its frank, take no prisoners declaration of personal independence. The songs are mostly original and quite strong in many ways. She contributed six songs outright with another half dozen written by guitarist Steve Bramer. Lewis rounds out the album with her interpretations of two classics by B.B. King and Warren Haynes. In her songs, Lewis plays a variety of roles with grit and grace: powerhouse blues mama, cheerleader for Chicago blues, a women who's been wronged and one tough cookie with whom you best not mess!
The album leads off with not one but a string of three blues songs about playing the blues in Chicago. “Can't Do it Like We Do” is an out and out expression of hometown hubris that claims bragging rights for Chicago's still active African American blues community. Lewis name checks Billy Branch, Mike Wheeler, and Nellie Travis while paying tribute to Magic Sam. She is blunt lyrically as she sings, “They just can't do it like we do”, a bluesy kiss off to the rest of the world. Lewis loves the city that birthed her musical dream and its immense legacy. She brought Sugar Blue in to contribute a trademark brilliant harp solo.
The second in Lewis' all original Chicago trilogy is “Hell Yeah,” an invocation to her local live audiences. “So if you come to party all night, let me hear you say hell yeah!”. You know she really means it with this forthright challenge to get down with the music. “We ain't gonna play no rock and roll/we got the blues and a whole lot of soul.” It's a bluesy call and response punctuated by the Chicago horns of Kenny Anderson (trumpet, arranger), Hank Ford (tenor sax) and Jerry DiMuzio (baritone sax).
For the album's third cut “Chicago Woman” Lewis supplies the feeling and adds the down and dirty slide guitar of Joanna Connor to the mix. Connor states the theme musically while Lewis enthuses “She's a Chicago woman/she won't be denied/you can give her the world/but you gotta keep her satisfied.”
Next comes the slower and soulful “They're Lying”, a change of pace musically. Lewis plays the part of the wronged party here. There's a sadness evident in her voice initially as she expresses the hurt one feels when victimized by gossip. Lewis eventually pushes back, “I've got to stand up and put my foot down.”
“Don't Try To Judge Me” stays on the defense, written by guitarist Bramer, who makes a major contribution to this album. The band gets a chance to stretch out instrumentally with ear catching solos by Bramer and keyboardist Roosevelt Purifoy.
Then it's two more of Lewis' songs including the album's attention grabbing title track. She sings for herself and for women everywhere, “I'm a grown ass woman and I take care of me.” It's another expression of gender pride with lyrics like “I'm the real deal” and “You can't do half the things I do.” Bramer and Purifoy shine once more on guitar and keyboards. On the previous track, “Old Man's Baby”, Lewis compares the ages of man, concluding, “I'd rather be an old man's baby than a young man's fool.” She continues, “An old man will wine and dine you” while “a young man's love will fool you.” Steve Bell, son of legendary harpist Carey Bell makes an appearance here carrying on the family tradition with a great harmonica solo and fills that really help to make the song memorable.
Lewis slows down the tempo on Bramer's ballad, “Walk With Me,” an invitation to love that offers, “I'll be your friend both night and day.” The hometown Chicago horns of Anderson, Ford and DiMuzio are again especially effective here.
Special guests Joanna Connor and Sugar Blue also return later in the album with extended solos on “Freedom” and “High Road” respectively. Lewis' band Texas Fire provide fine support through out; the lineup for this recording also includes Andre Howard and Ari Seder (for two songs) on bass and Tony Dale on drums in addition to the previously noted Bramer (guitar) and Purifoy (piano and organ). Lewis and Delmark's Steve Wagner share production credits.
The album ends with two prime cover songs: Lewis funks up the B.B. King standard “Why I Sing The Blues”, bringing something distinctive to this oft-covered classic. And finally, it's “Soul Shine” the great Warren Haynes song originally recorded by The Allman Brothers Band. “You gotta let your soul shine/ shine till the break of day.”
It's a special, upbeat way for Lewis to wrap up the proceedings. Grown Ass Woman is a recording that shows off her strength and maturity in a most satisfying way, providing fans old and new with a consistently entertaining listen from start to finish.
Greg Easterling holds down the 12 midnight – 5 a.m. shift on WDRV (97.1 FM) He also hosts American Backroads on WDCB (90.9 FM) Thursdays at 9 p.m.