ANYBODY WHO wonders how it was that the blues came north to Chicago can get all the answer he needs just by looking at a railroad map of the United States. The main line of the Illinois Central starts at New Orleans and follows the river through the Mississippi Delta on up to Memphis before cutting west through the state of Illinois. If you climb aboard a train down there in blues country and ride north to the end of the line, you'll find yourself at Roosevelt Road and Michigan on the near-south side of Chicago. That's a trip that one great blues artist after another took, beginning with Big Bill Broonzy back in the '20s. And they came to stay.What Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf and Memphis Slim put together there in the blues bars and rib joints was a whole new style - loudly amplified and more musically sophiscated, with greater emphasis on improvisation, something between jazz and the more primitive down - town blues of Mississippi and back -country Louisiana.
Although many of the stars of Chicago blues are no longer active on the scene (Memphis Slim is in Europe; Wolf is dead; Muddy has slowed down considerably since an auto accident that nearly took his life), the music still survices in the city where the style was born. Junior Wells and Buddy Guy are about the only two who tour regularly outside Chicago, but there remains a solid nuclear of first-rate bluesmen working regularly in and out of blues clubs on the black south and west sides of the city.
Anyone who needreassurance on this score has only to listen to the superb new three-part blues anthology just issued by Alligator Records, Living Chicago Blues (Vol. 1, Alligator 7701; Vol. 2, Alligator 7702; Vol. 3, Alligator 7703). The collection, which features the work of nine separate blue bands, should convince even the skeptics that the blues is not dead but alive and still kicking. There is enough energy and talent on display here to staff and equip a full-scale blues renaissance in Chicago. And these nine represent only a deep scratch in the surface, for this Chicago-based blues label offers a whole catalog of other artists, such as Koko Taylor, Son Seals, Fenton Robinson, and Albert Collins, who have recorded one or more albums on their own. Th other major Chicago label, Delmark, has a host of its own stars - Mighty Joe Young, Otis Rush, among others.
Some of those on Living Chicago Blues have recorded albums on Alligator, as well. Carey Bell's Blues Harp Band, which features Bell on harmonica and vocals on Vol. 2 of the collection, is fairly well known from apperarances at blues festivals and college concerts. Although not quite in Junior Wells' class on harp, Bell can outsing him, especially on the slow, soulful stuff, as he demonstrates here on "Laundromat Blues" and the haunting "Woman in Trouble."
Johnny "Big Moose" Walker, like Carey Bell, has been playing and recording since the 50's. A rowdy shouter, his true talent is as a piano player in that dirty bluesy style that first came to be known as "barrelhouse." He is all over the keyboard at once on "Worry, Worry" and "Sunnyland Blues" (a tribute to that great Chicago blues pianist Sunnyland Slim). Another piano man, Pinetop Perkins, who had a kind of semi-demi-hit with "Pinetop's Boogie" last year, sings well here on "Blues After Hours" and "Littleerkins is the oldest bluesman represented on the anthology. It's good to be able to report that there is also a group here, the Sons of the Blues, made up of young men in their mid-20's. Especially good, since they have one of the nicest single cuts on the albums, the beautifully mournful "Have You Ever Loved a Woman," on which guitarist Lurrie Bell sings memorily well in a hushed manner that is just right for the material.*tAs far as I am concerned, however, the big news on Living Chicago Blues is the Jimmy Johnson Blues Band and the Lonnie Brooks Blues Band. The two principals are the most exciting new talents in the blues that I have come across since Alligator introduced Fenton Robinson on his first album. Jimmy Johnston has a high tenor that puts to good use with odd, crooning, keening interjections on slower tempos, as here on "Your Turn to Cry" and "Breaking Up Somebody's Home." But he is just as good on the uptempo stuff, too. Lonnie Brooks has a less startling voice, perhaps, but he does very intersting things with it. He uses it with great subtlety on all four of the numbers he does here. I would buy an album by him in a minute. Both Johnston and Brooks, by the way, play great guitar and their bands are the tightest on the three albums.
As for the rest, well, there are flashes and glimmers on every tracks. But if the talent represented is not uniformly superb, it is at least as spirited and honest as the music itself. Every revolution must have renaissance in Italy there were a lot of painters in the school of Titian and only one Titian. And a blues renaissance needs opening acts. CAPTION: Illustration, no caption, by Zarko Karabatic for The Washington Post