Your Complete Guide to the Chicago Blues Scene
Lonnie Brooks 80th Birthday Bash
December 21, 2013
House of Blues, Chicago
By Linda Cain
Photos: Harvey Tillis
Photos: Harvey Tillis
It’s hard to believe that blues great Lonnie Brooks is 80 years old. His youthful appearance and lively manner certainly belie his octogenarian status. Known for his energetic performances, especially his revved up version of "Sweet Home Chicago,” Brooks now stands as a revered elder statesman of the blues.
So it was not surprising that his birthday celebration, hosted by his immensely talented sons Ronnie and Wayne Baker Brooks, would include sets by luminaries from Chicago and all parts of the country: Jellybean Johnson, Billy Branch, Otis Taylor, Todd Park Mohr (Big Head Todd), Eddy “The Chief” Clearwater, Lil’ Ed, Jimmy Vivino, Shemekia Copeland, Otis Clay, Cicero Blake and Donald Kinsey.
In May 2010, Lonnie Brooks was inducted into the Blues Foundation’s Hall of Fame during a grand ceremony in Memphis. The honor was one of many highlights in a career that has spanned six decades! From Louisiana’s Cajun country to the roadhouses of Beaumont and Port Arthur, Texas to the rough and rowdy urban blues bars of Chicago’s West Side, Brooks has been performing his unique blend of rock’n’roll, swampy grooves, Texas rhythms and Chicago blues. Known for his exciting showmanship, along with his powerful, soulful voice and his creative, versatile guitar stylings, Brooks is an international blues star and has performed the world over countless times.
His 1979 album on Alligator Records, Bayou Lightning, won him the prestigious Grand Prix du Disque Award from the 1980 Montreux Jazz Festival in France. A 1982 trip to Germany resulted in an hour-long Lonnie Brooks TV special. Country artist Roy Clark landed him an appearance on the popular TV show Hee Haw. He also performed in the film Blues Brothers 2000 with Dan Aykroyd and John Goodman.
It was an appropriate honor to have Dan “Elwood Blues” Aykroyd return to Chicago, home of the blues, to emcee Lonnie’s milestone celebration at the House of Blues (an enterprise which Aykroyd originally started).
The festivities began about 8:30 p.m. with a high energy, three-song set by three guitarists and a harp player: Ronnie Baker Brooks, Billy Branch, Jellybean Johnson and Shane Stewart backed by the house band: Jerry Porter (drums), Kenny Kinsey (bass), Daryl Coutts (keyboards), Nick Byrd (rhythm guitar). This really got the crowd primed, especially when Ronnie launched into his dad’s song “Don’t Take Advantage of Me,” which was famously covered by Johnny Winter. By the third song, the crowd was clappin’ and singin’ along as Billy wailed, squeaked and hit impossibly high notes on his harp to close out the set.
Big Head Todd, in his bluesman guise, came onstage with his dobro (steel resonator guitar) and was joined by Mr. Branch on harmonica. “I wrote this song for Honeyboy Edwards on the day he died,” Todd explained, introducing his amusing biographical song about the colorful blues man who kept company with Robert Johnson. The Delta style original was well received by the fans. Ronnie came out to join in, as the band kicked in for another one of Dad’s songs, “Mojo Hand,” which featured a funky bayou beat, a guitar duet with Todd and Ronnie, and groovin’ solos by Billy on harp and Daryl Coutts on keys.
After wishing Lonnie a happy birthday, Otis Taylor wasted no time in leading the band into a dynamic set of his trademark trance blues. He solicited solos from Nick Byrd on Fender Strat and drummer Jerry Porter, who gladly obliged, much to the listeners’ delight. Taylor then brought out Ronnie and Wayne to engage in a sizzling four-way guitar jam! As the band provided a relentless pounding beat, Otis played a solo himself, sending out stinging blue notes. He gathered Wayne and Ronnie to the front of the stage for a big finale with a three-way guitar jam as the audience cheered them on. The band kept playing as Otis started his exit, while hugging Ronnie and Wayne on the way out. A look at the watch told us that only about an hour had passed, it was 9:20 p.m. and so much excitement had already happened. But plenty more was yet to come.
Eddy “The Chief” Clearwater and Ronnie Baker Brooks led the band in a lump-de-lump Chicago blues style intro that led into “Gonna Give You A Good Leavin’ Alone,” (from his West Side Strut CD on Alligator, produced by Ronnie). The Chief belted out the “tell off” lyrics and played a nice solo; just then Billy Branch came out to add his harp flourishes. Eddy, Ronnie and Billy then formed a huddle to finish the song out in style.
Lil’ Ed bounced out from the wings to lead the crowd into a cheer for the birthday boy as the band started up another Chicago style blues number, which Ed turned into a bluesy “Happy birthday to you” song for Lonnie. Soon Ed was on his tip toes in his red sneakers, joined by Ronnie as the two jumped up and down in unison while jamming on their guitars! The crowd roared its approval. Just then Lonnie Brooks -- dressed stylishly in a suit, cowboy hat and boots – strolled onstage. He was greeted with cheers from the fans, as a giant, yummy birthday cake was brought out for all to see. A passel of family members and musicians gathered onstage to sing happy birthday, as they danced and clapped along to the band’s blues beat.
Lil’ Ed, Billy Branch and Ronnie kept things going musically, as they moved in next to Lonnie to play for him one on one. Ronnie coaxed Dad into singing along on a fast moving medley of classic blues tunes including: “Sweet Home Chicago,” “Big Boss Man,” “Hey, Hey The Blues Is Alright,” and Eddy Clearwater joined in on guitar. The crowd was pumped and hugs were exchanged all around onstage.
Emcee Elwood announced a special video presentation as a huge screen was lowered from the rafters. The celebration continued as a fun collection of videotaped birthday greetings and shout outs to Lonnie were presented, from friends near and far, including: Robert Cray, Steve Jordan, George Thorogood, Keb’ Mo’, Derek Trucks & Susan Tedeschi, Elvin Bishop and (surprise) Keith Richards!
Then it was back to live music with a set by Wayne Baker Brooks on guitar and vocals that was a jam band styled tour-de-force, as this son of the blues served up two of his Dad’s numbers: “Greasy Man” and “Bewitched.” Wayne’s soaring solos set the house on fire as the fans on the packed floor shouted approval. The guitarist impressed us with his own catchy blues tune, “It Don’t Work Like That,” which got the crowd singing and boppin’ along.
Wayne then introduced “my brother from another mother,” Jimmy Vivino. The guitarist/bandleader from Conan O’Brien’s TV show, proceeded to tell a story about how in 1977 he discovered Lonnie Brooks in his native New York City; he praised Lonnie’s influence on guitarists across the globe. With help from Wayne, Vivino launched into a straight ahead blues number as the two guitarists traded licks. Vivino powerful voice wailed with sadness because he couldn’t “get his baby on the phone.” The guitarist prowled the stage as he directed the band to keep playing the real deal blues. Ronnie came out to help with the second Vivino number, which the latter called “the eternal song.” They played the ‘60s rockin’ dance tune “Do The Crawl” which got the joint jumpin’ to the irresistible retro rhythms. You could just imagine the white go-go boots!
It was now 10:40 p.m. and Ronnie and Wayne’s sister in the blues, Shemekia Copeland was next. “They (the Baker Brooks family) took me under their wing when I was 15 years old,” said the New Queen of the Blues, who is now 34 and has accomplished so much in her career including two Grammy nominations, a stack of W.C. Handy/Blues Music Awards and a White House performance. The band started into a slow, sad blues number, “That Ain’t Right,” as Shemekia’s magnificent, powerful pipes simply drenched the lyrics in emotion. Ronnie’s guitar solo matched the sorrow in her voice; his notes were so blue it was like teardrops falling. Daryl Coutts’ organ swelled, echoing the sadness. Shemekia and her band of brothers hit it straight to heart! When the song ended, Ronnie gave her a hug.
Then it was time for some nasty, gritty, funky blues as Shemekia belted out “Black Cat Bone.” The stylishly dressed daughter of Johnny Clyde Copeland was on fire as she sang, danced and shouted out this blues classic. This was Shemekia as we haven’t seen her lately; she was performing at her most primal, digging deep into her roots. Wayne got into the spirit as he played guitar with his teeth during a solo. Wayne and Shemekia boogied as Ronnie took a turn on his axe while doing the Lil’ Ed dance on his tiptoes. Shemekia stopped the band so she could finish “Black Cat Bone” a cappella. The audience roared and clapped mightily for this jaw-dropping performance. And still there was more excellence to follow.
Otis Clay took the stage about 10:55. Emcee Dan Aykroyd introduced the soul/gospel legend, adding “this is what you call a real party!” Surprisingly, Otis sang all straight ahead blues classics. We have seen Otis with his own band many times, but we have never seen him perform solid blues. And what a terrific blues singer he is! The masterful vocalist delivered Lowell Fulson’s “Reconsider Baby,” ZZ Hill’s “Down Home Blues” and other tunes with authority, infusing the songs with soulful emotion, grit and power.
Clay’s performance was mesmerizing; at first he would keep it down, singing with subtle nuance to draw you in, and then building the tension until his pipes burst open as he belted out the ending with glory, adding a soul scream for effect. Ronnie’s evocative guitar echoed the emotions in Clay’s soaring voice.
Wayne joined the proceedings as Otis chatted about Lonnie and called out his fellow soul man, Cicero Blake, onstage. Cicero seemed surprised to be there, but Otis coaxed him into dueting on a slow, sad blues number as the crowd cheered them on. Ronnie joined in, singing: “Go on and have your fun/ It takes a smart man/ Just to play dumb.” Otis switched songs with “Little Bluebird,” pouring on the soul and hitting some impossibly high notes. He and Cicero prepared to exit, as Otis remarked: “Lonnie is leaving us in good hands with Ronnie and Wayne.”
To which Ronnie replied, “We are honored to share the stage with the masters who paved the way for us.” Lonnie, the paternal figure, came onstage briefly as his sons finished the set with some fiery guitar licks and a bit of “Happy Birthday to you.” Donald Kinsey and Billy Branch appeared onstage. Kinsey, who is also the son of a blues master (the late Big Daddy Kinsey), led the band into a funky number as he shouted out “Happy Birthday Lonnie!” Kinsey belted, “Got my mojo workin’” as Billy wailed out his response on harmonica. Ronnie joined in for a smokin’ guitar duet with Donald. Everyone onstage joined in on the chorus for a dynamic version of this blues classic: “But it just don’t work on you!”
Kinsey signaled the band to switch to an old time blues style as he slowed down to solo; soon he and the band moved into a stop-time rhythm as the guitarist launched into “Hoochie Coochie Man” much to everyone’s delight, accompanied by Billy Branch’s sweet, soulful blues harp. The guitarist’s smooth, sultry vocals wrapped around the bawdy lyrics, adding a sensuous touch. Don and Ronnie stood shoulder to shoulder, exchanging licks. Don was really feelin’ it as he kicked up his heels, moving and dancing behind the mic. The crowd went nuts as he and the band ended the tune with a bang.
Ronnie wasted no time kicking off the intro to “Sweet Home Chicago,” for the grand finale of the night. One by one, the blues stars gathered back onstage: Jellybean, Lil’ Ed, Otis Clay, Cicero Blake, Shemekia Copeland, Big Head Todd, emcee Dan Aykroyd and of course, the birthday honoree Lonnie Brooks. Shemekia began the old Robert Johnson chestnut and the others joined in on vocals, improvising lyrics, or playing hot solos on their instruments for the joyful chorus: “C’mon, baby don’t you wanna go?” Soon the stage was packed with friends and family, and Lonnie was surrounded by the love, as the clock was about to strike midnight.
It was a fitting end to a very special night and an extraordinary tribute to a very special 80-year-old gentleman (who doesn’t act or look his age), with many breathtaking performances that won’t soon be forgotten.