Your Complete Guide to the Chicago Blues Scene
Chris Thomas King
February 9, 2011
by Linda Cain
p hotos: Jennifer Wheeler
hotos: Jennifer Wheeler
Chris Thomas King is full of surprises, as evidenced by his show at Evanston’s SPACE. Although he is highly regarded as a blues musician, King easily moves between genres. On a frigid February night in the middle of the week, the multi-talented artist performed acoustic Delta blues, electric Chicago blues, blues-rock, R&B, country, a touch of hip-hop, and even a Middle Eastern-flavored number. He also paid tribute to Ray Charles and dedicated a tune to Lindsay Lohan.
The son of Baton Rouge blues man and club owner Tabby Thomas, Chris Thomas (who added the last name King in 1995) was born in 1964 with a blues pedigree. He grew up listening to swamp blues masters like Silas Hogan, Guitar Kelly and Clarence Edwards and all of the famous artists who played at Tabby’s Blues Box. As a second generation blues musician who learned to play trumpet and guitar in sixth grade, King developed his own style by thinking outside of the blues box. Not only is he a triple threat musician – a singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist – King is an actor and business entrepreneur. His most famous role was portraying historic bluesman Tommy Johnson in the popular Coen Brothers film O Brother, Where Art Thou and his work on the soundtrack CD won him a Grammy. After releasing 14 discs on various record labels, King started his own indie label, appropriately titled 21st Century Blues, which launched in 2001.
But on the zero degree Chicago winter night, the 80 or so brave souls who ventured out were ready to hear some red hot blues and more. King and his two bandmates, on bass and drums, obliged by performing the fan favorite “I Want to Die With a Smile On My Face”, from Cry of the Prophets, which got everybody in a good mood.
Two songs from his Rise CD steered the course to more serious subjects. King lost his home and recording studio to Hurricane Katrina. His acclaimed CD, Rise, addresses the devastation and after-shock suffered by his family and fellow Louisianans. “What Would Jesus Do?,” sung in an easy and gentle voice, offered hope and encouragement to rise up from disaster. In King’s hands, the sad, old blues classic “St. James Infirmary” took on a more modern and immediate meaning. With sorrow on his face and in his voice, King made his pretty blue Gibson ES-137 cry and sing, bending notes and wringing emotion from its strings. Picking up the tempo, the guitarist played furious, rapid-fire notes for an intense finish, which activated the audience into loud applause. King kept up the pace with a cover of Freddie King’s “Tore Down,” which featured a killer solo that had the crowd roaring its approval.
King switched to acoustic guitar and finger picks, as he announced a set of “movie soundtrack music.” From O Brother, Where Art Thou?, he played the fictitious Soggy Bottom Boys’ hit, “Man of Constant Sorrow”. It was a more straightforward country version, minus the high and lonesome harmonies and twangy bluegrass stylings as served up by Alison Krauss’ bandmate Dan Tyminski and pals. King slipped a slide on his finger, adding a bluesy touch. The song had the same effect on the SPACE listeners as it did on the audience in the film -- it got the crowd happily clapping, cheering and hootin’ to a favorite tune.
King put that slide to good use on Robert Johnson’s “Come On in My Kitchen,” as he employed it to build up steam for a sensuous rendition. With his seemingly shy demeanor, sleepy eyes and smooth-as-silk voice, who could refuse King’s invitation to come indoors?
It was back to the country for a song from the Down FromThe Mountain tour, film and CD, which featured artists from the O Brother soundtrack. King played his country shuffle “John Law Burned Down the Liquor Sto’[sic]” and got folks’ feet a tappin’.
For his ninth song of the night, King moved over to SPACE’s grand piano (which has been played by everyone from Allen Toussaint to Dr. John). He began with a boogie woogie intro and then into the Jimmy Reed classic “Baby What You Want Me To Do.”
Still at the piano, King sang the country & western ballad “You Don’t Know Me” (originally by Eddy Arnold, later a hit for Ray Charles). His downy voice caressed the sad, longing, lyrics. “You Don’t Know Me” proved to be a theme for the evening, as King is a trendsetter who won’t be pegged into any one musical bag. The second theme of the night was that of loss – a common thread in blues and country music. King experienced it firsthand with Katrina. However, the sense of loss was paired with hope for the future.
The tribute to Ray Charles continued as King shouted: “Somebody say, yeah!” to which the audience obliged. King portrayed Lowell Fulson in the film Ray, which starred Jamie Foxx as the title character. Like Brother Ray, King engaged the crowd to serve as the Rae-lettes, and got them to sing the appropriate “Yeahs” and “Whoahs!” and to scream on cue. Everybody was feeling it by now, as the drummer and bass player each took a turn to solo.
After this lengthy, soul satisfying song, King left the piano to strap on his blue Gibson and play a number from his 2002 CD Dirty South Hip-Hop Blues. Never one to stand still musically, this disc was part of King’s experiment to bring blues to a younger audience by combining it with hip-hop, in an earnest effort to bring the blues into the 21st Century.
On “Da Thrill Is Gone From Here” Chris Thomas King used the music from B.B. King’s immortal hit, as a backdrop to half spoken/ half sung lyrics about escaping from a bad neighborhood where the “thrill” is definitely gone. On the chorus, he sang the original B.B. King lyrics and the audience cheered him on. This was a show-stopping number, as King went all out, becoming very animated and playing the guitar with his teeth, to applause and screams from the crowd. King bent the strings on his Gibson, eliciting the familiar B.B. King blue notes and tone.
The guitarist quietly switched to his Fender for another song from his Rise CD, “Baptized In Dirty Water” about the Katrina disaster, which left him and his family homeless. The song came in torrents. It started out with a guitar solo, in a low down, Chicago blues style. King made the guitar speak and his face showed the most expression of the night. Employing foot pedals and the whammy bar, King really got down, swinging his Strat for a blowout, emotion-packed solo. “Hear me weapin’ and moanin’ / I ain’t got a damn thing to lose / All I can do/ Is sing the blues.” And boy, did he, as the audience went nuts!
The next song, “Rehab,” was dedicated to Lindsay Lohan, a heavy blues-rock number that you’d expect to hear from the band Living Colour. It was loudest song of the night, as the band transformed into a power trio, rocking out and jamming. “Rehab” will be released on King’s new CD Caught In Between, due out in March.
King introduced the final number by saying, “I’ve been singing this song since I was 10.” The familiar opening notes of “Johnny B. Goode” rang out and indeed King played that guitar like ringing a bell, as the crowd sang “go Johnny go”.
The band left the stage, but soon returned for a very pleasing encore, “I’ll Fly Away.” The gentle version of the bluegrass spiritual featured King fingerpicking his Gibson for a pleasant solo accompanied by his bandmate on standup bass. King and the audience sang together on the chorus: “When I die/ hallelujah/ by and by…” for a down home feeling.
King debuted another new song, “Sketches of Treme’,” which came out of left field, with its dreamy imagery and Middle-Eastern flavor. King seemed to magically transform his acoustic guitar into a sitar, making its strings ring and vibrate. The drummer played an African djembe and used a beater on the tom toms. The song started out slowly, in a style akin to folk singer Donovan. “Sketches” then built into a mesmerizing jam, with the djembe vigorously pounding away, sounding like Indian tabla drums while King’s acoustic mimicked George Harrison’s sitar. “You don’t know my mind,” King chanted over and over. If only someone had lit some incense. King rested on the piano bench while the bassist and drummer took solos, pumping up the intensity. The drummer warbled like Xena Warrior Princess and King rejoined them for the song’s big finish. The audience clearly dug this musical flight and erupted in applause.
For two solid hours and 18 very diverse songs, King succeeded in providing a much-needed respite for the 80 plus people who braved the weather to attend his very exceptional show.