Your Complete Guide to the Chicago Blues Scene
May 10, 2013
By James Porter
Photos: Dianne Bruce Dunklau
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James Cotton, blues harmonicist extraordinaire, isn't quite as visible as he used to be. When he does play a show, it's guaranteed to be an event!
Cotton is frequently referred to as a former member of Muddy Waters' band, but he really became prominent when he went solo in the mid-sixties. At the time, rock music's love affair with electric blues was in full swing, and the James Cotton Band's high energy show quickly became a fixture at every rock ballroom standing. While so-called "blues revivals" came and went, Cotton maintained a steady career that only really slowed down after a 1993 bout with throat cancer. These days, while his speaking voice is a gritty whisper (usually someone else handles the vocals), his harmonica chops remain undiminished. His new album on Alligator, Cotton Mouth Man, features guest spots from Keb Mo, Gregg Allman, Delbert McClinton, Joe Bonamassa, Ruthie Foster and Darrell Nulisch. All except Bonamassa (who plays guitar) handle vocals. While the album has a distinct blues-rock aura, Cotton's show at the Mayne Stage in Chicago walked on the side of tradition.
The show started at a leisurely pace with chestnuts like "After Hours," "Honest I Do," "Birdnest On The Ground," "That's All Right," "Rocket 88," and "Strange Things Happening," gradually working up to fever pitch with the quick-tempoed likes of "Got My Mojo Working" and "Don't Start Me Talkin'" (which was preceded by a monologue about that song's creator, Sonny Boy Williamson). Cotton attempted to "sing" only once -- on "I'm Your Hoochie Coochie Man," he spoke the verses while Nulisch sang the choruses.
It should be mentioned that a good portion of the show was devoted to instrumentals. As anybody who has ever attended a blues jam knows, it can be hard to sustain interest with a blues instrumental, which usually turns out to be a generic 12-bar workout with tedious solos and no hook. Good for showing off technique, but where is the song? Cotton had no such problem -- he has such a tasteful command of tone that even the short staccato riffs got a rise out of the audience. This wasn't mere charity, either; Cotton, as well as the rest of the band, knew how to restrain and showboat at exactly the right times. Guitarist Tom Holland especially knew how to lay out or step up when needed -- he's usually known for fronting the Shuffle Kings, but Cotton chose him as his guitar picker for the right reasons.
Ex-Chicago harpist/singer Rob Stone opened the show, earnestly crediting the sources of each song before turning in spirited versions of songs like Magic Sam's "Give Me Time" and Little Johnny Jones' "Wait Baby," backed by Harlan Terson (bass), Mark Wydra (guitar), and Willie Hayes (drums).