Your Complete Guide to the Chicago Blues Scene
ROB BLAINE’S BIG OTIS BLUES
February 4, 2011
Hard Rock Café, Memphis, TN
By Liz Mandeville
It’s a cold, rainy February night in Memphis. Beale Street is hopping with grinding blues wafting from every café, barroom and two antique theatres. Die hard blues fans, clutching charts of scheduled showcase performances, are rushing from venue to venue passing pan handlers and barkers trying to lure the faithful with promises of cool drinks and tasty BBQ. The fans, steam rising from the excited chatter of shivering bodies, plod on resolutely to support their home town bands or check out a show and meet some new sounds.
I’m on my way to the Hard Rock Cafe, where I’m determined to cheer on our home town heroes, Rob Blaine’s Big Otis Blues, even though it means passing up seeing the amazing Shaun Booker who is battling for her finalist spot two blocks away at B.B. King’s club and Australia’s wonderful Sweet Felicia whose charming show is going on at the Daisy Theatre, all at the same time! How can you be in three places at once? But the word on the street is Rob Blaine’s Big Otis is THE act to be reckoned with -- big guitars, big sound, dragging the Chicago scene out of the ‘50s, past the ‘70s and into the new Millennium. OK, I’m game.
The Windy City Blues Society has sent guitarist Rob Blaine and his Big Otis Band to represent Chicago and on this night Rob and his crew have made it to the semi-finals. They are just about to take the stage as we enter the Hard Rock, secure a front row seat at stage right, and start peeling off layers of winter clothes. The room is packed with blues lovers, who’d undoubtedly heard about Rob and Co.’s impassioned performance the previous night. This is a multi-tiered room with a large stage in one corner about five feet off the ground. Seating to the left and right of the main support post guarantees everyone a good view of the stage. We are all excited; the anticipation is palpable.
Rob Blaine straps on his guitar, checks his tuning and hits the ground running with a blazing, galloping shuffle. The band’s natural energy is as infectious as watching a young thoroughbred win its first Derby. Soaring, dueling guitar riffs blaze through the air as Rob and Pete Galanis trade licks. Spurred on by the insistent, bone shimmying rhythm section of James Knowles (drums) and Joewaun Scott (bass), the song leaves the audience blinking and breathless!
Before you can slap your mama, the band has launched into a slow, minor blues. Rob grabs licks, hands full of molten notes, then snatches his hand away like his guitar was burning and indeed it has lit a fire in this audience. With a lush foundation built by the band, Joewaun Scott chooses a melodic intersection with Pete’s chording, laying a velvet swath of blue on which Rob paints the music of pain. Leaving delicious pauses, parenthesized by screaming fills, he builds the intensity to a fevered pitch, his long curls flying, covering his face. He growls snatches of lyrics that are as much a part of the rhythm as his guitar playing.
The tight, Chicago rhythm section, synchronized like a Swiss watch, follows every accent, every dynamic ebb and flow, every break like one being with four bodies. Let me say right here that, even on a ballad, James Knowles is a locomotive and the giant sound of this band fills the entire block with emotion and power. At the end of the tune the entire crowd is on its feet giving Rob and the Big Otis a standing ovation, and this is only the second song!
I’m hearing echoes of Albert Collins and Otis Rush, just as the previous tune has allowed glimpses of a young Buddy Guy. It’s blues filtered through the senses of a fresh set of hands, Rob Blaine’s hands, fingers flying over lightening fast licks with emphatic rhythmic embellishments.
The Big Otis, like a giant earth moving machine, rolls through a classic, extended ending, filling every second of their allotted time. The crowd leaps to its feet as one, demanding an encore. Throughout the se,t the band remain focused on each other, exchanging knowing smiles and glances, it’s like we’re watching their private lives spelled out in musical fury. If I were to describe the Big Otis experience using one word it would have to be FURIOUS!
Of course, they went on to the finals and took third place, in spite of the fact they were competing with some of the finest groups in the competition (including the powerful Blues Sur Seine-French entry, AWEK, who played their smoking brand of Texas blues at the Hard Rock earlier that night). But no judge could resist the power of Big Otis and their leader Rob Blaine, who won the Albert King Award for Best Guitarist.
After the show, I asked Rob how he and the band had prepared for the competition.
“We pretty much just went in saying we were gonna just have fun and not think about it too much, just have a good time and do our thing.”
Then I asked him: “What was in your mind going into that last showcase at the Orpheum?”
His answer: “The Orpheum was kind of the same thing, but I really wanted to show Memphis what the new school Chicago blues is all about, especially on that big of a scale.”
That’s right, as Rob said, Chicago’s not a history lesson; we’re still writing the book and the latest chapter is named Big Otis.