Your Complete Guide to the Chicago Blues Scene
The Chicago Way
By Steve Jones
Toronzo Cannon has emerged as one of the forces to be reckoned with on the Chicago blues scene. His thoughtful and entertaining songs are played and sung with passion and musicality that is unmatched. Cannon’s fourth album, and first on the Alligator label, shows his continued growth and love of music. The songs he writes are new and modern yet we can forsee that many will become future standards in the line of greats like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Buddy Guy and Koko Taylor. This South Side bluesman who drives a bus on Chicago’s West Side can spin stories within his songs that grab and captivate listeners while entertaining them. His guitar work is up there with the greats. Kudos to Cannon for producing his finest album to date!
Eleven brand new, all original songs are featured on Toronzo’s Alligator Records inaugural release. I love his lyrics because they often reflect the human condition of the people in his life or that he observed in many years of driving a CTA bus. The songs reflect blues themes we can identify with and sometimes have lived. Whether he sings of a broken relationship, cheating between a man and his woman, or what he looks for in the opposite sex, growing old, or how to win over a woman, we can feel his emotions and pain. He uses his guitar to express his feelings just as well as he does with his vocals.
“The Pain Around Me” is a stellar cut that opens the CD. Toronzo’s guitar and vocals reflect the pain and suffering he has witnessed on Chicago’s mean streets; Brother John Kattke’s expressive organ work also helps to set the tone. Toronzo’s vocals balance nicely with his guitar solo to really set a high bar for this record. The next song, entitled “Bad Contract,” concerns a pre-nuptial agreement gone wrong. This is a funky blues number where Cannon tells the story of how a poor soul lost half of what he owned in a marriage gone wrong. Cannon’s guitar stings once again with his solo work. Soaring and fast paced, he displays his prowess on his machine. The bass and drums by Larry Williams and Melvin “Pookie Styx” Carlisle set a wonderful groove for the cut.
“Walk It Off” is a very darkly humorous – both funny and sad -- song of how Toronzo’s protagonist has to shake off all the bad things happening in his relationships, including a child of unknown origins, and a scary scenario of both his wife and girlfriend listening to him in a club at the same time while wearing the same dresses he bought for both of them on the road. And as is often the case with Toronzo’s stories, there is a steppin’ out tale with a surprise twist: the cheating man leaves his woman’s home to find his wife is getting it on with his lover’s husband. The escalation into use of weapons offers listeners some more dark humor. Toronzo pulls a knife on his wife’s paramour and the other guy pulls a gun, thinking he has the upper hand. But “the Chicago way” prevails as Cannon pulls out a hand grenade and pulls the pin. The craziness of it had me laughing heartily. Another fabulous guitar solo is presented to us by Cannon in mid-song and at the close; I have to say I can’t get enough of his outstanding guitar playing. Kattke’s piano and keys here again make for a very cool sound.
Cannon follows with “Fine Seasoned Woman” where he tells us in a swinging manner how women with a little age and experience are far superior to younger ones. Kattke’s horn arrangement here is well done; Doug Corcoran (trumpet), Steve Eisen (tenor sax) and Robert Collazo (baritone sax) do a bang up job in support. “Jealous Love” is a song where insecurities destroy a relationship. His woman’s jealousy is unfounded yet it bubbles up all the time to the detriment of a harmonious relationship. More good guitar solos are included on this, and on the prior cut, serving to show why Cannon is currently the hottest commodity on the Chicago scene. Melon “Honeydew” Lewis does some nice backing vocals here, too.
The horns return for “Midlife Crisis” where they and Kattke give us a big intro before Cannon goes off to lament getting old. When the doctor corroborates he’s just getting old and that he’s not 22 anymore, Toronzo decides he must chase younger women (who turn out to be his daughter’s age) and get a fancy car to prove the doctor and himself wrong. And to make matters worse, he finds out that his wife is ironically doing the same thing, chasing young men. The song has some nice guitar and keyboard solos here once again. “Chickens Comin’ Home to Roost” features some slightly distorted and very cool guitar solos by Cannon as he sings about running to escape paying for past sins. “I love ‘em and I leave ‘em” is the predominant theme here as Cannon wails on vocals and guitar.
“Strength to Survive” is a song about a broken man, with no plan in life, in need of love to help him get through life’s misfortunes. To note, the rhythm guitar here and on the last three songs is done by Pete Galanis. The lead and backing guitar work here (as in all the songs) is impeccable. Cannon and Galanis are both spectacular. “When Will You Tell Him” is a slow and soulful number wherein the singer implores his woman to break off her main relationship so he can come out of the darkness after slinking around for over three years. Thoughtful and pensive guitar and vocals are plentiful here. The organ humming behind the vocals and guitar also sets a beautiful tone. “Mrs. From Mississippi” is a bouncing and rocking blues tune where Cannon extols the virtues of a fine Southern lady. Toronzo’s guitar bleats out praise as do his vocals, on another well done song. Cannon closes with “I Am.” Beginning with an acoustic guitar intro, the song quickly shifts to a full scale production where Cannon preaches, “The devil is laughing while God is reachin’ out to you.” The sound and emotion build and the guitar solo caps off a great song that concludes this fine set of tunes.
I can say without reservation that Toronzo Cannon has reached the top of his profession. No one in the Chicago blues world plays and sings with the emotion and feel that he does. The years of hard work, gigging, playing for free, working a day job and playing night after night have resulted in him achieving the status of landing on the top of the heap in the Chicago blues scene; he is one of the very best bluesmen out there anywhere. His work pays homage to those who passed before him and will stand as a benchmark for future generations of blues artists. The Chicago Way is Cannon’s biggest and most explosive album. When the 2016 awards nominations for best albums go out I am certain this one will make the list! I most strongly recommend this album for your continued listening pleasure.
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