Your Complete Guide to the Chicago Blues Scene
August 25, 2011
By Leslie Keros
photos: Harvey Tillis
photos: Harvey Tillis
Half an hour before the sold-out show began, the house was crowded, the air thick with anticipation. It’s not often that an artist of Jimmie Vaughan’s stature plays at an intimate club. So when he and his Tilt-a-Whirl band strode to the stage at SPACE in Evanston, the audience was more than ready to show them a warm Midwestern welcome. That evening, the Texan lost no time in returning the favor, his guitar licks hot and his demeanor cool. It was an irresistible combination.
Jimmie may have become famous as a founding member of the Fabulous Thunderbirds, but he’s not one to rest on his laurels—or to rely on flashiness to win listeners’ approval. His guitar playing is rhythmically grounded, both tasteful and powerful in its economy. This is a musician who knows how to use the space between the notes at least as much as the notes themselves. On “It’s Been a Long Time,” he established a loping rhythm, alternately playing very fast, then returning to the swaggering melody. “I Ain’t Never” featured a remarkably blistering guitar, and the slow, moving “RM Blues” painted a rich contrast, giving Jimmie the opportunity to play a plaintive, piercing, insistent solo whose brevity whet the appetite.
On “Roll, Roll, Roll,” Greg Piccolo and Doug James—alumni of the Roomful
of Blues horn section—were ready to break out. Greg took the spotlight,
wailing and squealing on his tenor saxophone as baritone saxman Doug
bobbed his head to the groove. Now warmed up, the dynamic duo continued
to shine on “The Pleasure’s All Mine.” Jimmie began the song with just
his vocals, then jumped in with his guitar, bending the notes to
reinforce the message. As Greg let loose with a growl on his tenor,
Jimmie clapped his hands and invited the audience to do the same—which
they did, cheering and hooting and whistling along. Jimmie and the boys
had loosened up the crowd, and the party had clearly gotten under way.
On “Yes, Indeed,” Greg took over the vocal duties, with Jimmie singing backup. Doug proved his mettle with a powerful solo on the baritone; not to be outdone, Greg stepped back into the ring, and the two reedmen went at it. The most memorable tenor performance of the night, however, was yet to come. In “Teardrop Blues,” Greg played a haunting solo, almost Ben Webster–like in its smoky intensity. Jimmie entered the scene with a piercing guitar, building to a blazing finale.
About 40 minutes into the set, Lou Ann Barton ascended the stage and lent her Southern wail to the proceedings. By the time she was ready to sing “Sugar Coated Love,” Lou Ann sounded completely at home, and the band gave her more space. She had recorded this song with Stevie Ray, and Jimmie played his guitar in a style that recalled his flamboyant younger brother while not aping him.
“Scratch My Back” received a rollicking, swampy treatment. Lou Ann clearly enjoyed stretching the notes with her suggestive Southern drawl. Jimmie relished playing the chicken scratch on his guitar, and Lou Ann responded by teasing him (“I don’t know wh-e-e-ere to SCRAY-atch”). On the fifties-style original “Boom-Bapa-Boom,” the vocal harmonies of Jimmie and Lou Ann (also a Roomful of Blues alum) moved in lockstep. Rhythm guitarist Billy Pitman took a rare solo on this number, and George Rains and upright bassist Ronnie James proceeded to nail the rhythm down while the audience sang the chorus. Jimmie then played an extended solo on the guitar behind his head—the longest solo of the night—as the crowd cheered him on.
Satisfied by this reception, Jimmie allowed the band to exit the stage, remaining behind to treat the audience to a solo version of “Six Strings Down.” Lou Ann and the band returned for “In the Middle of the Night,” and Jimmie played very precisely and intently, bending his knees and squeezing his eyes shut. The band seemed ready to jam again, and on the instrumental “Coming and Going,” they played their hearts out, as though they’d been waiting all evening for the opportunity. “DFW” ended the night on a very powerful note—Doug growling upward on the bari sax, Jimmie following it up with a rhythmic solo, then the band concluding the song in unison. The crowd rose to their feet in a standing ovation, demanding more in a deafening roar.
Throughout the show the band was tight and controlled, a true ensemble. They maintained a measured pace, making their way through more than two dozen songs in about two hours. Such a long set list was a tall order; if anything, it would have been nice to hear the band stretch out a bit. But complaining that the band members didn’t play more seems very faint criticism indeed.