Your Complete Guide to the Chicago Blues Scene
April 27, 2012
Viper Alley, Lincolnshire, IL
By Linda Cain
Photos: Dianne Bruce Dunklau
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At age 76, James “Superharp” Cotton can no longer sing and he can barely speak. A throat cancer survivor, his voice wavers between a rumbling croak or a raspy whisper. He can, however, speak volumes with his harmonica. And on a Friday night in a suburban venue, located in a shopping center behind a hotel complex, that was packed with blues fans, Cotton told the story of the blues by grabbing a hold of the listeners from the first note and never letting up for the next hour and a half. He succeeded in mesmerizing the fans who hung on his every phrase, as he sat center stage, with a small table beside him piled with stacks of harmonicas in various keys, as he played his blues harp magic for them.
Backed by a rock solid blues trio – Tom Holland on guitar, Noel Neal (Kenny’s brother) on bass and drummer Jerry Porter -- and joined by Texas singer Darrell Nulisch, Cotton succeeded in transforming a vast showroom, that doubles as an upscale bowling alley, into a jumpin’ blues joint for a night. Happily, Viper Alley’s state-of-the-art sound system was supervised by installers Gary and Joan Gand (who have their own blues band Blue Road), so that not a note nor a trill of Mr. Cotton’s harp was lost. And the array of flat screen TVs on the surrounding walls were changed from sports channels to an in-house camera aimed at the stage for the rest of the night, so that no matter where you sat or stood, you wouldn’t miss a thing.
Cotton’s smoking trio warmed up the crowd for about 15 minutes with a fine blues set featuring solos from each expert band member, that got the crowd roaring its approval. Cotton walked out from the wings at exactly 10 p.m., while rendering and holding an impossibly high note as he took his seat; he suddenly switched to fat bottom notes, and then into a breathless solo that went nonstop for what seemed like minutes. One wondered when he would come up for air, but Cotton kept going.
Texas vocalist Darrell Nulisch came out and took a seat next to Cotton, to sing Muddy Waters’ “Blow Wind Blow,” which the latter accented with percussive harp blowing. Next they slowed it down for more Chicago style blues as Nulisch sang “Change Your Ways.” Cotton was really into it, as he rocked in his chair, smiled and slapped his knee as the fans cheered him on. The band kicked it up a notch as Holland soloed on guitar with a flurry of notes to more cheers.
Cotton zoomed right into the next song with a rompin’ stompin’ beat, and continued to roll from one song into the next with nary a chance for the audience to finish its applause. Cotton ruled the stage like the maestro that he is, while his bandmates seemed telepathic, switching tempos or coming to a halt at the slightest signal from their leader.
Nulisch and Cotton played off each other very well. Cotton egged on the laid back, soulful singer by punctuating verses with a well-placed “whoop!” or a rejoinder on the harp for emphasis. Cotton cupped his hands and flayed his fingers to create a symphony of sounds on his small diatonic harmonica.
They served up blues classics like “That’s Alright,” “Down The Road I Go,” “Got My Mojo Workin’” and songs by Cotton’s mentor Sonny Boy Williamson (Rice Miller), who took on James as an apprentice at age 9.
For Jimmy Reed’s romantic ballad “Honest I Do,” Nulisch’s vocals sounded ever so sweet, as did Cotton’s harp playing, while the band mellowed just a bit.
Then it was a race to the finish line, that really got the joint jumpin’ for “Rocket 88,” “Don’t Start Me To Talking” and “Baby Keep Your Hand Outta My Pocket.” The big finale, “The Creeper” -- which is Cotton’s signature tune -- was a roof-raising, swinging instrumental that had the audience on its feet boogying and clapping along. It was a true blues blast by a legendary performer who sent the folks home happy, carrying that juke joint elation with them out into the suburban night.
One of Cotton’s biggest fans was in attendance, John “The Doctor” Jochem, a very talented local harp player who worked with the late Johnnie Mae Dunson and Jimmy Lee Robinson. Jochem had this to say about his harp hero:
“Cotton’s little blues power trio behind him was terrific! Cotton still very much has the sound. I’m very familiar with his recordings. I’ve followed him for years. As he went from song to song, I was struck by how true he was to past recordings, even with his solos. He played several solos note-for-note in a way consistent with past recordings. He’s not just up there haphazardly wailing; he’s approaching each tune with a degree of reverence, still having a great time, playing the material correctly, the way it is traditionally supposed to be played. He’s a living link to Sonny Boy Williamson II, who taught him to play, to Muddy, Jimmy Reed and Little Walter. You could hear all of their influences in his playing and it’s just so cool to feel that connection when Cotton performs. He’s nearly 77 and he moves a little slow, but it’s amazing to me that you can hear his own very distinctive tone and phrasing as soon as he starts playing. I was really glad to be able to hear him! “
Eddy “The Chief” Clearwater, Cotton’s label mate on Alligator Records, opened the show at 8 p.m. with an hour long set that included deep West Side Blues, a touch of country, rockabilly and swing.
The band --Tom Crivellone on guitar and vocals, Shoji Naito on harmonica and guitar, along with Dave Knopf on bass and drummer Stephen Bass – opened the show with a fun version of “Tired of Sneaking Around With You.” They brought on The Chief to a pounding tribal beat and Eddy took to the stage dressed in a huge feathered headdress for a brief song. Then he switched to a white cowboy hat and picked up his red Gibson for some houserockin’ blues with “Hypnotized, Mesmerized,” followed by “You Better Find You a Job” that got the crowd clapping.
Clearwater grabbed tight onto his vintage Gibson’s neck, coaxing notes and bending strings for the lowdown blues of “Same Old Blues Every Time.” But he was only getting warmed up at this point.
By the sixth song, from his most recent Alligator CD West Side Strut, Clearwater switched gears into rockabilly mode and really took off, moving about the stage and firing off Chuck Berry-inspired licks with the rollicking “Too Old To Get Married, Too Young to Be Buried” that had the crowd chuckling.
The band displayed wonderful, old school ensemble style playing for Little Walter’s “My Babe,” featuring Shoji’s ace harmonica chops, which foreshadowed what was to come in the next set.
The next two songs were lowdown West Side blues -- the spooky “Came Up The Hard Way,” and a haunting version of Otis Rush’s “All Your Love, I Miss Loving,” featuring The Chief’s powerful blue notes and his emotive vocals.
It was back to upbeat music, that got people on their feet dancing, for the final two songs: “Guitar Boogie Jam” a swingin’ new original song that lived up to its name, and “Cool Blues Walk,” the bass struttin’ closing number.
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