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LIVE REVIEW -- Solid Blues



With Mavis Staples, Charlie Musselwhite, North Mississippi Allstars and Joe Krown

Friday, November 2, 2007

McAninch Arts Center at College of DuPage

Glen Ellyn, IL

 mavis-staplesPhoto by: Jennifer Wheeler

by Linda Cain


A tip of the blues fedora to whoever came up with the concept for the Solid Blues concert tour.  Teaming the talented young trio that comprises the North Mississippi Allstars with gospel/blues veterans Mavis Staples and Charlie Musselwhite and adding the versatile talents of New Orleans keyboardist Joe Krown was a brilliant idea.

The resulting music was something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue. The synergy of these great artists performing together on stage that night created something very powerful and new that was rooted in something very old and enduring -- American blues and gospel music.




For a person who was not born and bred in Louisiana, keyboardist Joe Krown certainly has a genuine feel for the sounds of New Orleans.  Originally from New York and Boston, Krown relocated to the Big Easy in 1992 where his career really took off.  He’s won numerous local awards and served as Clarence Gatemouth Brown’s keyboardist until his passing in 2005. Krown leads several of his own bands and is an in-demand piano and Hammond B-3 session player. He has toured all over the world and shared the stage with everyone from Eric Clapton to Carlos Santana.


Krown’s 20-minute opening set went by far too quickly. Performing solo on the grand piano, he played four instrumentals from his most recent CD, “Old Friends.” The masterful interpreter of old-timey styles opened with “Tchoupitoulas St. Rag” then moved into stride piano style with the Professor Longhair signature tune “Tipitina.”  Krown’s original song, “Old Friends” was sweetly sentimental and reminiscent of a Satchmo tune. His deft touch on the ivories displayed a true love for the music of the South. The crowd was clearly entranced by Krown’s skilled playing and he left them wanting more with his final number, “Junko Partner,” a rollicking boogie woogie, with a gospel intro.  If you are ever in New Orleans, this musician is a must to catch playing in the local clubs.





The second act up, the North Mississippi Allstars -- brothers Luther and Cody Dickinson and Chris Chew -- performed as a seated acoustic trio. This was a far cry from their “day job” as electric, funkified, power jam banders for the Bonnaroo set.


But they were clearly up to the task of switching gears into folksier territory and were quite natural at performing music written decades before they were born (all three are in their early 30s). No doubt the minute brothers Luther and Cody were born, their daddy Jim Dickinson (a famous producer and musician who worked with Aretha, Dylan and The Stones) stuck a guitar in their tiny hands. Mighty bass player/vocalist Chris Chew is no slouch either and he brings his deep gospel church background to the table.


 The trio’s knowledge of music history and their ability to interpret, adapt, update and weave in and out of so many styles of Americana is remarkable for their age. The Allstars opened with the old gospel song “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” that got everyone clapping along. It featured Cody on acoustic guitar, Luther sliding on dobro and Chris playing bass parts on four-string acoustic guitar.  The second number was an instrumental guitar-and-dobro duet between the brothers that was reminiscent of Allman Brothers acoustic songs such as “Little Martha.”  Cody proved he could easily leave his “day job” as the band’s drummer since his pickin’ is as hot as Leo Kottke’s.


Cody’s considerable drum and percussion skills provided the dramatic backdrop for the trio’s haunting version of Bob Dylan’s ‘60s anti-war protest song “Masters of War.” Luther took over acoustic guitar and vocal duties as he sang Dylan’s epic ode against war mongers while the music pulsated and throbbed to a crescendo. As the band switched to electric guitars, Luther dedicated the song to the brave volunteers in our military.


Joe Krown joined the All-Stars on piano and electric keyboards as Chris Chew sang the blues on “Don’t Let Me Drown.”  For their final number, “Po Black Maddie/Cherry Red,” the band strutted its North Mississippi Hill Country stuff, performing the funky, revved-up blues-rock style that gets ‘em boogying at Bonnaroo.  It was a thrilling 28-minute set, with more to come.




After a brief intermission, Charlie Musselwhite strolled on stage carrying his arsenal in a metal briefcase of full of blues. While he set up the harmonica-filled case on a stool next to his mic, the North Mississippi Allstars joined the blues harp master for more great jams.


Charlie opened with a Chicago style blues song, “Fast Women & Whiskey,” a tale that you know he lived through.  His vocal style is to talk-sing and Charlie knows exactly how to draw the listener in, like an expert story-teller or a poetry slammer.


Born in Mississippi, Charlie noted that his family moved to Memphis, where he immersed himself in the blues scene. He moved by himself to Chicago at age 18 where he “didn’t know a soul.”  This inspired him to write “Nobody Knows Me.


The band started the song in Chicago style blues, which they clearly dug.

During his solo, Charlie turned to face Luther for some improvised guitar and harp interplay that was wildly creative and joyous. Suddenly the Allstars kicked it up a notch and turned the song into a smokin’ Hill Country style blues while Charlie blew crazy notes and Luther madly played slide guitar.


The next song, “Black Water” switched to a more somber tone, as Charlie explained the song was about Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath. He added, “some people call the song Bush Water.”  The instrumental featured Charlie’s mournful harp solo and Luther’s haunting slide work.


The sadness was quickly replaced by the next song, “Church Is Out,” which Charlie explained is another way of saying “time to party.”  The band did exactly that. Luther’s rockin’ guitar solo sounded much like the old Johnny Rivers hit, “Secret Agent Man” which put everyone in a festive mood.


Perhaps we’ll never know the name of Charlie’s final number. He said he recorded it in Chicago in 1966, but couldn’t recall the title. No matter, because the untitled instrumental he played was a harmonica tour-de-force, during which the wizard of the blues evoked an entire orchestral movie soundtrack from one tiny instrument. The audience cheered and gave him a well-deserved standing ovation.





Recently, marvelous Mavis Staples really had me worried. To celebrate the release of her latest CD, “We’ll Never Turn Back,” she performed with Ry Cooder on Jay Leno’s “Tonight Show” earlier this year. While singing one of the album’s civil rights’ era freedom songs, Mavis’ very hoarse voice gave out on her and she barely was able to finish the number.  Having seen her perform live several times over recent years, she did seem to be plagued by throat problems. I hoped that she wouldn’t lose her precious voice permanently.


Thankfully, miracles do happen and Mavis’ performance at The Mac was evidence of that. To quote Charlie Musselwhite’s introduction, “she is a singer who gives me goosebumps. She just KILLS me every time I hear her sing.”  And Mavis proceeded to do just that, opening her set with a song about the inequality that she experienced in her lifetime -- the chilling gospel-style song “Down In Mississippi.”  With backing from the Allstars and Charlie on harp, Mavis spoke and sang of her family’s civil rights work with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Joe Krown added gospel keyboards to “Eyes on the Prize,” an upbeat freedom song which inspired Mavis’ full tilt vocals and powerful wailing.


The Allstars, plus Krown, got to strut their stuff on “The Weight,” which Mavis famously performed for The Band’s concert movie “The Last Waltz.”  This time she and bassist Chris Chew traded verses, clearly delighted to sing with each other. Mavis gave a very animated performance, waving her arms overhead and feeling the spirit.


            She and the Allstars took everybody for a ride down the “Freedom Highway,” with Mississippi Hill Country style. Mavis noted that her late father, Pops Staples, had written the song in 1962 after he first met Dr. King. “Pops said if Dr. King can preach it, then we can sing it.”   It’s a song that inspired the young Allstars to update it in their own style 45 years later, record it and include in their concerts. “I’m still on that highway,” Mavis told the crowd as she turned the theater into a church revival.


The Staple Singers’ secular ‘70s hit, “I’ll Take You There,” kept the spirit going, with the audience singing and clapping along, as Mavis got down with some gospel scatting. Mavis left the stage to a standing ovation, but soon she returned.


Church was NOT out yet. Everyone in the house stood to sing and clap along to “Down By the Riverside,” that segued into “When the Saints Go Marching.”  Mavis, Chris, Luther and Charlie took turns on the verses. Joe, Luther and Chris traded keyboard, guitar and bass solos respectively.  For the final curtain call, the entire Solid Blues crew held hands and bowed, smiling hugely and radiating their love for the music, their fans and each other.


Copyright: November 2007, Linda Cain




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