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LIVE REVIEW -- Dave Specter & Billy Flynn

Dave Specter’s Adventures in Guitar with Billy Flynn


Evanston, IL

November 4, 2009

 Dave Specter & Billy Flynn with band


Adventures in S.P.A.C.E.


By Mark Baier


Photos: Linda Cain


On any given night in Chicago, opportunities abound for travelers searching for the pulse of this great city and beyond. The metropolis is alive and vibrant, blessed with a richness and diversity that define it as world class. Indeed, the adventure into the soul of Chicago reveals its gifts and secrets to those who know where to look. Just across Chicago’s northern border lies Evanston’s S.P.A.C.E., tucked away in plain site, rewarding the community with a cultural bounty that is unique in its variety and quality.


S.P.A.C.E. is an acronym for “Society for the Preservation of Arts and Culture in Evanston”, and it’s the kind of place that revels in its “well kept secret” ambiance, the entrance being nestled behind a classy gourmet pizza restaurant in downtown Evanston. A confirmation of the “secret password,” and you are escorted into a performance space that is ample and intimate at the same time. The calendar of artists taking the stage at S.P.A.C.E. is eclectic and diverse, making it hard to pin down stylistically.  But on a Wednesday in November, there was no doubt that Chicago's finest Blues was on the menu, served up by two of the giants of blues guitar, Dave Specter and Billy Flynn. Stalwarts of the local scene for decades, Specter and Flynn have enriched audiences locally and the world over with their distinctive approaches and styles. Over the years the two have only very rarely performed together, making the evening’s performance all the more notable and substantial.


On this particular night, the atmosphere at S.P.A.C.E. was akin to a ‘60s night club with candle-lit tables, abundant legroom and spaciousness across the 3,000 square foot room. It was an elegant ambience that felt comfortable and friendly. Exposed brick walls, vintage wooden floors, a vaulted ceiling adorned with huge artsy light fixtures and Asian-inspired fabric hung on the walls give the room a modern hipster vibe.  A giant projection screen behind the stage area displayed rare footage of Earl Hooker, Hubert Sumlin and Lightnin’ Hopkins which whetted the collective appetite and set the mood for a night of sublime music.

Dave Specter
Dave Specter


When Specter and Flynn hit the stage with a spirited shuffle in “C”, it was evident that an evening of masterful blues interpretations was at hand. Dave and Billy have always approached the genre from different starting points, with Specter’s urban sophistication providing uncommon counterpoint to Flynn’s gritty soul excursions. This particular evening, they would put that diversity on display with an exercise in advanced guitar, highlighting the instrument’s lyricism and vocal qualities with aplomb. Both Dave and Billy are experts at crafting engaging instrumental songs, a rarity in this age of vocal-dominated music, and they demonstrated their unusual mastery of the genre from the first note. For an instrumental song to have weight and substance, it must have melodic strength and skillful arrangements to balance its improvisational forays lest it become formulaic and predictable. In song after song, Flynn and Specter manifested their individual genius and authority over the musical moment, weaving melody, harmony and tempo with control and grace. The rhythms and moods varied throughout the evening, touching on emotional Grant Green jazz numbers to Robert Nighthawk grinders. The stylistically deep set list also included a joyful homage to Johnny Young and his singular country style. Billy Flynn has no equals in this particular style and showed himself to be exceptionally adept as a mandolin maestro of the highest order. In a day and age where the genre is dominated by loud electric styles, this subtle blues form is precious and rare. Flynn also displayed his innate talents at harmonica, playing with such a natural easy style that it could be mistaken for his primary instrument! Billy should be applauded for keeping this archaic brand of blues vital for modern audiences. 

Billy Flynn on mandolin
Billy Flynn (mandolin), Harlan Terson (bass)


            In the course of their 2 1/2 hour performance, Specter and Flynn communicated intuitively with each other, venturing from smoky, smooth jazz strains to swampy voodoo slide excursions. The two players’ sounds and styles are quite different; Dave’s rich mellifluous Gibson tones are in stark contrast to Billy’s stinging “Sumlin-isms”, but the union of the two didn’t generate a dissonant note all night. In fact, the divergent styles served only to complement and highlight the other, time after time. Notable selections included Bobby Hepp’s one-hit-wonder “Sunny” from the 1960s, King Curtis’ “Soul Serenade”, Freddie King’s “Sen-sa-shun” and “Heads Up”, Fenton Robinson’s “You Don’t Know What Love Is”, along with a sonic soliloquy to late Chicago blues artist Willie Kent, who mentored both men in their youth. Particularly memorable was a rendition of Peter Green’s iconic “Albatross”, which evoked all the foggy surrealism associated with this Fleetwood Mac chestnut.


What stands out about this meeting of instrumental masters is the natural ease with which they adapt to each other’s repertoire and nuances. Over the course of the evening, both Dave and Billy acted as bandleader, and regardless of material, the individual strengths of one was enhanced by the sympathetic backing of the other. The success of this head-to-head is, in no small part, due to the rock solid and confident bass and drums provided by Specter’s long time backing band of Harlan Terson and Greg Wyser-Pratte. Both have played hundreds (if not thousands) of gigs with Dave the world over, and their skillful and sublime rhythms provided Dave and Billy with top notch support all evening. The near-telepathic connection they had was a pleasure to behold.


It is noteworthy that in a short period of time, S.P.A.C.E. has established itself as the club of record for the movers and shakers in the Chicago music community.  The superior quality sound system and friendly ambiance attract both artists and record executives alike to its confines. Audience members for Adventures in Guitar included blues impresarios Dick Shurman and Paul Stilin with none other than blues artists Zora Young and Rockin’ Johnny Burgin, who shared the stage with Dave and Billy for three energy infused numbers. S.P.A.C.E. is the place to fatten your blues business card wallet!

Zora Young & Billy Flynn
Billy Flynn & Zora Young


The pairing of Dave Specter and Billy Flynn is the first in a series of special concerts at S.P.A.C.E. being billed as Dave Specter’s Adventures In Guitar, and it’s hard to imagine a more satisfying combo platter than these two Chicago luminaries sharing the stage. The interplay and communication demonstrated between them is uncommonly engaging and it begs the question of whether the two will recreate this remarkable evening in the future.


“Lake Michigan ain’t no river, Chicago ain’t no hill top town.” No truer words have ever been captured in song. On a chilly Wednesday evening at S.P.A.C.E., Dave Specter and Billy Flynn attested to that and, in doing so, established themselves as two of the premier purveyors of the Blues in this great city. The legendary legacy that is Chicago Blues has never been in more able hands. Hey, Dave and Billy -- the rest of the world awaits. Encore!!

Billy, Johnny, Zora, Dave
Billy Flynn, Rockin' Johnny, Zora Young, Dave Specter 


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 Don't miss Hubert Sumlin & the Nighthawks, Dec. 4 at SPACE in Evanston, Illinois.
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