www.myspace.com/chicagobluesguide Your Complete Guide to the Chicago Blues Scene
Chicago Blues Tour
May 16, 2009
By Linda Cain
Photos by Jennifer Wheeler
Photos by Jennifer Wheeler
see more photos of the tour, click on above photo
To see more photos of the tour, click on above photo
Visitors to Chicago know it is famous for two things: deep-dish pizza and the blues. Of course the city’s world class architecture and museums are on the list of essential sights to see, too.
If you are a visitor, or even a Chicagoland native, who happens to be a blues fan with a sense of adventure, you may wish to stray from the usual tourist destinations to catch the twice-yearly Chicago Blues Tour. This long-standing bus trip will celebrate its 20th anniversary in 2010. The winter 2009 tour bused 500 patrons around town, and this spring, 365 blues fans took the tour. For $40 per person, including round trip transportation, blues fans are able to see more bands and hit more bars in one night than anyone ever could on their own. (Private tours for larger groups are available the rest of the year).
The bus tour is a well-charted pub crawl that takes its patrons to see eight blues bands at seven different clubs in South and West Side neighborhoods that are off the beaten path. (In some cases, that is putting it mildly). These are not the well-known touristy blues bars downtown or on the North Side. No one is singing “Sweet Home Chicago” or “Mustang Sally” in these joints: Linda’s Place, Rooster’s Palace, Checkerboard Lounge, Wabash Tap, Catcher’s Inn, Rosa’s Lounge and Lee’s Unleaded Blues. Instead, you get heaping portions of genuine, gritty blues and soulful R&B served up the way the neighborhood locals like it.
The Spring 2009 tour began at the Wabash Tap, a sports bar on south Wabash. Deak Harp and his combo were playing acoustic Delta style blues when we walked in. The south Loop sports pub was packed with blues tour patrons, who were all abuzz, discussing bus routes and getting a head start on the evening’s imbibing.
After getting our wristbands and studying the map, we figured out which bus to board that would take us to our desired first stop: Catcher’s on 35th Street. The South Side sports bar served as a hub for most of the bus routes, so it made sense to go there first. We knew we wouldn’t be able to hit all seven clubs, so we decided to visit the most obscure locations on the tour. The Chicago Blues Guide trio boarded a bus that left at 8:15 p.m. and headed east to Lake Shore Drive. The sun was still out and bus riders were treated to views of the spectacular Chicago skyline, the Field museum and Soldier Field. Riding on the yellow school bus with the high-backed seats reminded me of being on a school field trip, which is not far from the truth, since this tour is produced by Blues University. We drove south to the Dan Ryan Expressway and past White Sox Park (a.k.a. The Cell) and exited at 35th street towards our first stop in Bridgeport.
Our driver didn’t quite make “the catch” and drove past Catcher’s, due to lack of visible signage on the bar’s exterior, which seemed to be undergoing a facelift. The only sign with the word Catcher’s was hung about three stories high on the east side of the building, which was easy to miss. The bus driver went around the block and then dropped us off at Catcher’s. Ironically, when we walked in, the band was playing “Born Under a Bad Sign.”
We must have been the first crowd to arrive, since there was plenty of seating near the stage. The beer was cold and the band was hot. The neighborhood watering hole and ESPN spot for White Sox fans sported a dazzling black and white checkerboard pattern on both the floor and ceiling, in homage to the team colors.
The five-piece band, led by veteran blues drummer Robert Pasenko boasted two excellent lead guitarists, one of whom played slide. The 35th Street Blues Band treated us to some fine, houserockin’ blues, including “Down the Road I Go.” That was exactly the song for what we did next. The band took a break and we boarded the bus to take us to Rooster’s on the West Side to see the infamous Tail Dragger.
The CBG staff were the only riders, just three of us. Our tour guide was dressed like Elwood Blues, with hat and sunglasses, white shirt and skinny black tie. It was a long trip from the South Side to west Madison and Kilbourne Avenues as we drove through some of Chicago’s oldest, most colorful ethnic neighborhoods: Little Village and Garfield Park. Finally, we reached our destination – a corner bar on a badly pot-holed street, surrounded by broken sidewalk. Across the street was an empty, cratered lot that looked like it had been bombed. Just up the street stood a shiny new, monster of a gas station lit up like the Super Bowl. “We’re on an adventure,” we kept reminding ourselves. We opened the security-gated door, noting the sign overhead: “Welcome To Roosters.” We stepped inside the tiny, colorful bar, which wasn’t yet overflowing with tourists. It was like a trip back in time, as Rooster’s Palace décor was reminiscent of a 1970s frat house party room, complete with mirrored walls, twinkle lights, formica table tops, red vinyl bar stools and whirling ornaments dangling behind the bar. The party was in progress.
There was Tail Dragger in the middle of the room, dressed like a cowpoke. Before I could even remove my jacket and take a seat, the singer moved right up to me, looked me in the eye and sang, “don’t be misled / you got to use your head” and tapped me lightly on the side of my head to make his point. He moved his thin, snakelike body about the little room, getting up close to each lady he could find to deliver his message, eye-to-eye. He returned to me several times, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Some older ladies found his interactive, up-close style to be a bit startling, and they relocated to a spot that Tail Dragger couldn’t reach.
Singing in a low, gravelly voice, reminiscent of his mentor, Howlin’ Wolf (who gave him the name Tail Dragger for his tardiness), the blues performer told stories to introduce each song. “I didn’t take your woman! You done gave her to me!” he began as he launched into a cautionary tale directed at the menfolk: “It ain’t right. You gotta come home every night. You gotta treat her right,” he moaned.
The next bus arrived, dropping off a full load of passengers this time who tightly packed Rooster’s. Our timing was again perfect as we got on the bus back to Catcher’s. Upon arrival, we squeezed inside to find a different band on stage. They were playing “Born Under A Bad Sign,” which seemed like déjà vu, since the same song was playing when we hit Catcher’s earlier (hopefully the sports bar has a nice new sign by now). Soon it was 11 p.m. and the bus to the Checkerboard had arrived. It was a quick 17-minute drive to Hyde Park. The Checkerboard Lounge, it should be noted, shares only the name with the long-gone blues joint once co-owned by Buddy Guy. Whereas the original blues club was a true juke joint in a seedy South Side neighborhood, the New Checkerboard, as it is known, is a jazz and blues club located in an upscale strip mall on Harper Court in a nicely rehabbed area of Hyde Park. Just a couple doors down is the Dixie Kitchen & Bait Shop, which happens to be one of the Obama family’s favorite eateries. Inside the very spacious Checkerboard, hanging over the long, luxurious wooden bar was a framed photo of President Obama, next to a photo of B.B. King. Prints of old concert posters advertising everyone from Muddy Waters to Nat King Cole were taped to the walls.
Unlike the other bars we had visited, the Checkerboard is a true showroom, complete with top-notch sound, stage and lighting. There were plenty of comfortable chairs and tables with good sightlines to the stage to catch Vance Kelly and his special guests. The crowd was well-dressed locals, and not just bus patrons filling the seats. You could probably fit four Rooster’s bars inside this space!
Guitarist/vocalist Vance Kelly and his versatile five-piece band were on stage, backing up vocalist L.C. Pierce on both blues and R&B ballads. The romantic numbers got some couples on the floor for some slow dancing. Vance invited his talented son C.C. on guitar and daughter-in-law C.D. on stage for a turn. A petite, pretty lady with a big voice like Etta James, C.D. got the crowd going with a funky version of “Feel Like Breakin’ Up Somebody’s Home,” followed by the soulful “Time On My Hands,” that got the table of bus tour gals next to us swaying and singing along.
The senior Kelly got the room jumpin’ and the people dancin’ with his medley of Stevie Wonder songs: “Superstitious,” and “Livin’ For The City” that turned into James Brown’s “Sex Machine” and back into Stevie Wonder and then into The Temptations “Just My Imagination.” It was a breathtaking set that kept on going as we headed into the night to catch the bus to our final destination, Linda’s Place.
The bus headed west on 51st Street for what seemed like endless blocks of nondescript buildings. The bus stopped in front of one of them. We stood on the sidewalk in the middle of the block and wondered where to find Linda’s Place, since none of the buildings had signs. Suddenly a stream of tour patrons emerged from a side door of the building in front of us. As the door opened, we heard music and laughter, which beckoned us inside. And what a welcome sight! As dreary as the building’s exterior was, the interior was the polar opposite. Again, it was like a trip back to the late 70s disco era. Only this time the décor seemed as if it were designed by a naughty sorority house. Sleek, red, shiny and sensous was the theme here. Plushly upholstered, red leatherette chairs and highly glossed wooden tables flanked one mirrored wall (covered with publicity photos and fliers). On the opposite side of the long, narrow room was the bar. The bar’s back wall resembled the headboard of a bed in a Sybarus Valentine suite with its plump, red upholstery and a 1950s style wall clock embedded in the center. A rotating red light flashed along to the music. Bright lighting, tinsel and birthday balloons gave the room a festive atmosphere.
Lovely Linda was behind the bar pouring drinks while her hubby Fantastic L-Roy stood on a chair behind the bar singing to the lively patrons. Since there was no stage, the band stood in a corner at the end of the bar, in the back pool room. L-Roy’s Bullet-Proof band was not visible to the audience, but L-Roy made sure he could be seen by standing on the bar, on chairs and on tables. When he wasn’t doing that, he’d stroll among the bar and sing to each person with his ever-changing vocal style. The Fantastic L.R. can croon smooth and mellow on “Rainy Night In Georgia,” belt some funky blues, sing deep and gravelly on a Satchmo tune, or serve some lively Latin chops on a Santana medley. He was a nonstop bundle of energy at 1 a.m., with more to come. L-Roy took a break and announced that there were free tacos available in the back room. “We like to make everybody feel at home,” L-Roy noted while checking supplies at the taco bar. A visit to Linda’s Place is indeed a very cozy, comfortable, friendly and fun experience. It was a fitting finale for the long, memorable evening of the Chicago Blues Tour.
Linda's Place exterior
The last bus of the night came for us about 1:30 a.m. and returned us to the Wabash Tap, which was still hoppin’ after 2 a.m. But it was happy trails for us as we headed for home, which seemed a world away from the places we had visited that night.
Copyright, 2009: Chicago Blues Guide