Your Complete Guide to the Chicago Blues Scene
Blues at the Crossroads 2:
A Tribute to Muddy & The Wolf
Kim Wilson & the Fabulous Thunderbirds, Tinsley Ellis, Bob Margolin, Jody Williams & James Cotton
January 31, 2013
Presented by the College of DuPage’s McAninch Arts Center
Tivoli Theater, Downers Grove, IL
By Linda Cain
Photos: Dianne Dunklau
Photos: Dianne Dunklau
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With a roster of heavy duty blues talent like this, you’d almost expect the stage at the historic Tivoli Theater to buckle. Thankfully that didn’t happen and a full house (the venue holds 1,012 seats) of blues devotees were warmed up by some hot blues on a frigid winter night.
With emcee Kim Wilson leading the Fabulous Thunderbirds as the house band (with help from Chicago’s fabulous Barrelhouse Chuck on keyboards) to back up the featured artists --Tinsley Ellis, Bob Margolin, Jody Williams and James Cotton -- you knew beforehand that this was not going to be a run-of-the-mill blues cover band playing Muddy Waters’ and Howlin’ Wolf’s greatest hits. And it wasn’t.
Kim Wilson, looking sharp in a black suit, kicked off the concert with Muddy’s “How Long?” done in an upbeat shuffle, featuring tasty solos from Barrelhouse Chuck on keys and T-Birds guitarist Johnny Moeller. Ever the showman, Wilson added his impressive signature style on vocals and harmonica, getting the night off to a great start.
The second tune was another Muddy classic; the opening harp notes of the familiar “I’m Ready” readily drew cheers from the crowd, as Wilson stepped to the front of the stage, blowing hard with his leg bouncing to the beat.
The host wasted no time in bringing out the first guest, Tinsley Ellis. Alligator recording artist JJ Grey was originally scheduled to perform for this show, but for some reason, Grey couldn’t make the rest of the tour. Fellow label mate Ellis kindly stepped in. Southern gentleman that he is, the powerhouse Georgia blues-rocker toned things down from his normal high gear as he paid tribute to the Wolf with a sprightly version of “Howlin’ For My Darlin’” featuring fine ensemble playing by the band.
Ellis’ passionate, driving version of Wolf’s “Killin’ Floor” got bodies bouncing in their seats as Ellis channeled Hubert Sumlin’s classic guitar riffs. He and T-Birds’ Moeller traded solos for an exciting crescendo.
Ellis switched gears by pulling up a chair and picking up his dobro, as the band departed but Wilson remained to accompany him on harp. The duo played an acoustic Delta version of “Red Rooster” that was so down-home you could almost smell the Mississippi mud. The acoustics in the historic 1928 theater were perfect for this quieter style of music. The same can’t be said for some of the electric guitar solos throughout the night, as the sound seemed to fade in and out.
Bob Margolin was next. As Muddy Waters’ former guitarist, a bushy-haired and bearded young Margolin was featured in the Martin Scorsese film The Last Waltz. Heralded as a keeper of the Chicago blues flame sparked by Muddy, the multi-talented Margolin displayed to the Tivoli crowd skills he learned from the master.
For an original song he wrote “on the way to Jimmy Rogers’ funeral,” the guitarist played a rip-roaring, Muddy style slide guitar for “Mean Old Chicago,” making the strings whine like a stingin’ King Bee. The T-Birds backed up Steady Rollin’ Margolin with some fine ensemble playing, including traditional keyboard stylings from the ultra-talented Barrelhouse Chuck along with super harp blowing from Wilson. Margolin slung his guitar and howled as the crowd roared its approval.
Margolin kept the momentum going with Muddy’s “Going Down To Main Street” played in an upbeat, jumpin’ boogie style, aided by Wilson’s percussive harp chops.
Margolin stayed on for Kim Wilson’s slow blues on Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Sad To Be Lonesome.” Wilson expressed the song’s lonely sadness through his clear, powerful note-perfect voice and his wailing, mournful harmonica that rang out across the theatre.
Wilson kept blowing as he walked off the stage and into the audience and up the center aisle, singing and playing without the benefit of a mic; no problem, as he could still be heard way in the back section. Seemingly by magic, he loudly blew a high note and held it for a loooong time, while continuing to play other notes. Don’t try this at home folks!
Needless to say, the crowd went nuts as Wilson made his way back to the stage for a lengthy boogie blues jam, joined by Margolin, that had the fans clapping, whoo-ing and dancing along. And then it was intermission.
During the break, blues fans wondered: Is someone recording this show? I’d love to buy the CD or DVD! And: How could the second half of the show top this? When you’ve got blues legends Jody Williams and James Cotton waiting in the wings, you know there’s greatness to follow.
Wilson and the Fabulous Thunderbirds (lead guitarist Johnny Moeller, drummer Jay Moeller, bassist Randy Bermudes and Mike Keller on guitar) opened the second set to a Bo Diddley beat on “You’ll Be Mine”. For the next number, Wilson’s booming voice belted out the lyrics to Muddy’s “Mannish Boy” as the audience hooted and hollered. Rather than sing the entire tune, Wilson treated us to more of his inspired harp playing. Wilson dedicated the third song to Muddy’s granddaughter who was in the house. It may not have been the most appropriate song to sing for her as the words included: “you’re gonna get sick and die one of these days.”
When Wilson introduced Jody Williams, the audience stood and cheered as the Chicago guitar legend entered; he took a seat center stage and cradled his beautiful white and gold Epiphone.
One of the originators of electric Chicago blues guitar, Williams was a prolific session player at Chess Studios during its golden era. He played on numerous hits by Bo Diddley, Howlin’ Wolf, Billy Boy Arnold and others; he influenced future guitar greats like Otis Rush and Buddy Guy. He also enjoyed a solo career in the ‘50s and ‘60s, but quit the music scene entirely. Williams came out of retirement in 2002 to much fanfare and picked up his career in no time.
Williams displayed his renowned prowess on his signature instrumental “Lucky Lou” on which he quickly slid his nimble fingers up and down the guitar’s neck, causing it to “talk”, as he led the band through several tempo changes.
Kim Wilson returned to join Williams and the Thunderbirds for Wolf’s “Spoonful”. The band followed with an exciting straight-ahead blues number featuring sparkling solos by Barrelhouse Chuck on keys and Jody Williams on guitar; a dazzling duet between those two Chicago blues players ended the set. Williams left the stage to a standing ovation.
Next up, Wilson introduced James Cotton by singing his praises and admitting “I stole a lot of his stuff!” The peerless harp player, who backed up Muddy Waters for 12 years and apprenticed with Sonny Boy Williamson at age 9, walked out from the wings while rendering and holding an impossibly high, piercing note. Without missing a beat, Cotton took his seat and breathlessly alternated between high tones and low, rumbling notes. One wondered when Cotton would come up for air, but he kept on going.
The pumped up crowd offered him continuous standing ovations throughout his inspiring set, which included his famous instrumental “The Creeper” and “The River’s Invitation” with help from Kim Wilson on vocals. Some folks left their seats to get up and dance near the stage. Wilson and Cotton duetted on vocals and harp for the latter song, which stretched into a loping rhythm not unlike a Grateful Dead number. In fact Cotton was known to share the stage with the Dead back in the Fillmore Days.
For his final number, Cotton and the Thunderbirds played a boogie instrumental with several starts and stops, in which the band suddenly dropped out, leaving the music solely to Cotton, before jumping back in again. In fact, Cotton doesn’t need a band at all! He played his little diatonic harp with such rhythm, timing, melody, control and lung power, without pausing for so long, that you had to wonder at the 77-year-old maestro. Indeed this Houdini of the Harp was a marvel to behold; the audience stood and cheered him, long and loud.
One by one, Kim Wilson and the guest artists returned to the stage –Tinsley, Bob and Jody – for the grand finale, “Got My Mojo Workin’.” Although this blues warhorse has become an overdone cliché, much like “Saints Go Marching” in New Orleans, Cotton helped originate the song, arranging it for Muddy Waters to sing for the first time at the fabled Newport Jazz Festival in 1961. It helped revive Mud’s career and made him a star for an entirely new audience.
After explaining the tune’s history, Cotton led the band as the house lights went up and the audience stood, danced and sang along to “Mojo” with zest. And of course, Mr. Superharp got in the last note, sending the fans home on a very happy note on the coldest night of the new year.