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DVD Review -- Tail Dragger


Live At Rooster’s Lounge



 Tail Dragger DVD

by James Porter

Tail Dragger is a West Side blues legend, having been a Chicago staple for decades on end. Although he obviously copped a few tricks from mentor Howlin' Wolf (he named himself after one of Wolf's songs), he doesn't come off as blatantly imitative. Like the best of the Fifties Chicago bluesmen, he struts around the stage with bravado to spare, squarely in the older blues tradition yet not sounding like a stale museum piece. He also knows how to act the fool. The man has extraordinary lung power that resonates through the PA, and he knows how to spin a good tale or two (as you can hear on the DVD's commentary track). But you don't forget the visuals, and no matter how well he can sang them blues, it's an extra-added surprise seeing him on the floor in the middle of the room, holding on to his wireless mic for dear life. And when he gets back up, you know good and well he's going to keep serenading the same woman all night long, giving new meaning to the term "face time." You get all this and more on Live At Rooster's Lounge.

Tail Dragger &  the Lady
photo by: Jennifer Wheeler

 Somehow the film crew, audience, band and staff managed to cram into this tiny West Side bar, located on Madison Street in a very rough neighborhood, as evidenced by the iron gates covering the doors and windows.  Tail Dragger holds a semi-regular residency at Rooster’s Palace (the club’s official title) on most Saturday nights, when he’s not performing in exotic locales like Argentina or Vienna. A trip to Rooster’s is like a trip back in time to a 1970s basement party room complete with mirrored walls, twinkle lights, Formica table tops, red vinyl bar stools and whirling ornaments dangling behind the bar.

However, beneath the festive surface, this is a highly emotional live session. Tail Dragger is reunited with Rockin' Johnny Burgin, his right-hand man and guitar slinger who he worked with in the '90s. At the time (March 2009), Burgin had just ended a five-year retirement and had just played his "return" gig the previous January. For a man who hadn't been on the scene in some time, Johnny looked and sounded good when this live set was captured. And the Tail Dragger remains the Tail Dragger. Backed by a band that includes Burgin (guitar), Kevin Shanahan (rhythm guitar), Martin Lang (harmonica), Todd Fackler (bass) and Rob Lorenz (drums), the man is fine form, singing the blues and dispensing folk wisdom from the barroom pulpit. Special guest, Chi-town blues veteran, Jimmy Dawkins adds some of his six-string magic to Tail’s self-penned song called "Wander." 

Tail Dragger (who earned his moniker from Wolf due to his tardiness) kicks off the evening with his mentor’s “Louise,” sung to a pretty young brunette on a barstool who becomes his muse throughout the night.  He treats the packed house to passionate covers of songs by Big Joe Williams, Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson and John Lee Hooker, performed as only Tail Dragger can. Five original songs by James Yancey Jones (Tail’s real name) are presented complete with the author’s highly dramatic narratives: “I didn’t take your woman! You done gave her to me!”

After you get through absorbing the music, be sure to watch the commentary track on the DVD. After Tail Dragger gets through with a quick bio, then his wife and a few of his friends wander in; that's when the real conversation begins, with hilarious off-the-cuff stories of the legends they knew and worked with. This is intercut with interviews with Burgin and Lang, who have some hair-raising tales of their own. And just like the people inside Rooster’s, the folks talking it up with Tail Dragger sound like they're having a rocking good time, too.


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