Down with the blues in Chicago

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 10 September, 1996, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 10 September, 1996, 12:00am

In the dark recesses of the mean city, not far from the crack houses and soup kitchens, blues music continues to thrive. Nowhere is this more true in the 1990s, as it was 40 years ago, than in Chicago.

I went to the Windy City recently with the mission of seeking out the authentic blues experience; on streets which are harder today than when Al Capone and John Dillinger called the shots.

Admittedly, a holiday in the 'hood' is not everyone's idea of getting away from it, especially if home is the choking metropolis of Hong Kong. But music pilgrimages are nothing new.

Country fans whoop it up in Nashville every year and thousands of jazz enthusiasts flock to New Orleans.

Sweet Home Chicago owes its musical heritage to the length of train track, running down the spine of America, through Memphis to the bayous and swamps of Louisiana.

The track, inspiring a steam of railway songs along the way, took tens of thousands of black families from the depressed rural communities of the south to the new industrial centres of the north.

The stockyards and slaughterhouses of the South Side were the backdrop against which urban blues took root, super-vamping the original Delta-blues style, synonymous with rickety porches and whiskey-swigging grandpas.

While many blues clubs cater for tourists in the safe Lincoln Park area, for the more dogged fan, the allure lies in pulling up a stool and drinking Jim Beam in the same South Side bars which took young musicians out of doorways and turned them into legends.

Of the handful that remain, few are more famous and none are older than the Checkerboard Lounge.

The bleakness of the dimly-lit environs around East 43rd Street, renamed Muddy Waters Drive, is almost mesmerisingly oppressive - there are no air-conditioned bus tours going down there.

The club looked more like a car workshop than a live music venue, but while the decor may have been drab, the same could not be said for some of the patrons.

One man playing cards was resplendent in white with a black Lone Ranger-style mask, neckerchief and boots.

I was not the only white face in the club. Typically, the guy propped against the bar was another young English journalist.

However the scribe in question, Paul Trynka, was on a more purposeful mission than myself. He had been given a book advance to track down the dwindling generation of original artists before it is too late.

Chicago-stalwarts Magic Slim and the Teardrops were playing that night. Midway through the gig, Slim, who is rather portly nowadays, picked out a small man at the back.

Vence Kelly strolled up and after awkwardly grappling with Slim's big guitar, launched into a blistering set.

The city is full of surprises like Kelly; blues journeymen who have never taken their music beyond their own backyard.

The local crowd warmed and mellowed, as the night wore on. A middle-aged woman, sitting at the bar, kept her eyes shut throughout, rocking gently to the driving rhythm of Slim's no-nonsense guitar.

One character, drinking from a big beaker, and dressed in an all-denim suit, was trying to coax some young ladies on to the floor.

The man in question, turned out to be the MC and my ride home. I had asked for a cab, but 'Greedy', as he is affectionately known, insisted on driving me back into the city, as is customary with overseas visitors.

After promising the barmaid we would be back some day, we headed into the cold night, briskly crossing the road to a small car lot.

First priority, declared Greedy, was to get some cigarettes and petrol.

Passing some pretty scary people, loitering in darkened cul-de-sacs, we pulled into the uninspiring OK Corral gas station.

After raking through a pile of tape cassettes, we were soon cruising up the Interstate, windows down, with Buddy Guy blaring from the speakers and Greedy waxing on about his mate Buddy, arguably the world's greatest living blues guitarist.

The man proved a true gent, taking us right to our doors and refusing to take a cent for his trouble.

Despite all the Grammies and world tours, famous blues artists like BB King and Buddy Guy do not forget their roots. For the likes of Guy, the hard times are not that far over his shoulder.

On another night in Chicago, a blues veteran called Buster Benton came out of retirement. He had been moved to take up playing again after his son had been gunned down in the South Side and to add to his woes, he had just had his second leg amputated.

A bad case of the blues. But his appearance brought out the blues community in force.

For the vast part of the gig I did not realise the woman standing next to me was Koko Taylor, Chicago's Queen of the Blues.

Contrary to stereotype, blues performers are far from a terminally-depressed bunch. Many people complain about plaintive lyrics expressing misery and bad luck.

But while the blues are very relevant in this age of AIDS babies and drive-by shootings, every artist has his happier, upbeat tunes.

A number of younger bluebloods are coming through, despite the pervasive and fashionable influence of house music, which also hails from Chicago.

By my reckoning Lucky Peterson is the best of the new bunch along with Michael Coleman who has a regular slot at Kingston Mines club.

The West Side, which includes the notorious Cabrini Green housing project of the Candyman horror fame, also has its blues clubs, the best of which is Rosa's Blues Lounge.

And the tradition of bands busking at Maxwell Street market every Sunday morning is still going strong.

Chicago, it should be added, is also the home of Oprah Winfrey, deep dish pizzas, Playboy magazine, the Bulls, Bears and the White Sox.

It boasts some of the finest modern architecture in the world and some of the best galleries and museums.

But if you want to get down and dirty to the blues, Greedy will be happy to show you around.