By James “Skyy Dobro” Walker
Chicago IL is called the “Home of the Blues” for many reasons. It is certainly debatable which city should hold that title, but until you find another city where one can hear live Blues seven nights per week in several clubs, Chicago is the “Home!”
B.L.U.E.S. on Halstead Street is one of Chicago’s oldest and most intimate clubs. It is a smoke stained, smallish, narrow room so far from swank that it is the stereotypical Chicago juke-joint of today. It is the setting for this live recording made June 29 & 30, 2006.
There are well over 80 Blues musicians who live and work in the Chicago area, and one that is about to be much better known, based on this new album, is Carlos Johnson. Born in Chicago on January 17, 1948 and raised on the South Side, Johnson spent 30 years learning his craft as a sideman. The spotlight hit him in May of 2004 when he accompanied Otis Rush on a Japanese tour. Suffering from a stroke a few months earlier, Rush could barely play or sing. Johnson, who had worked in Rush’s band at one time, filled in ably and dazzled the Japanese fans.
Johnson’s smoking left handed guitar style reflects influences of Otis Rush as well as Albert King. Like King, he strings his guitar like a righty, which, when inverted to play left handed, puts his bass strings on the bottom and the treble strings on the top. There is also a jazz influence in his licks derived from the early ‘70s when he was playing jazz as well as blues.
Some of that jazz is heard in the 5:47 minute opening track, an original instrumental, “C.J.’s Swing.” Carlos’ bouncy guitar notes float above the rhythm like a migrating Monarch butterfly darting in and out, up and over, this way and that, but always progressing onward. One 10-second passage is a snippet from the theme song from Dick Clark’s American Bandstand show. The well rehearsed rhythm is provided by The Serious Blues Band: Dave Rice – keyboards, James Knowles – drums, and Sam Green – bass and background vocals.
We first hear Johnson’s instantly likeable vocals on the second track, an original titled, “Lisa.”
Kicking the song off to the howls of delight from the audience, Carlos implores his love interest, “Come on baby, baby, baby, ride with me....” Some horns, un-credited in the album liner notes, can be heard adding to the rhythm (plus on other songs, too). By the way, the liner notes are in both Japanese and English.
Worth the price of admission, the third track is a 10:38 minute killer version of “I’ll Play the Blues For You.” Dave Rice takes a nice piano solo followed by organ. Johnson explores different tones as he weaves lead guitar throughout the song. The result is pure magic.
By the 4th track, the band is in full party mode on Tommy Tucker’s “High Heel Sneakers.” Carlos takes a mid-song break to narrate a childhood remembrance from a Baptist Church with a “kicking choir – kicking so hard people would just pass out!” On Johnson’s signal, Rice plays a Gospel groove on his organ with the band “kicking!”.
Slowing the tempo, Johnson picks plaintive notes to open the next track, his 9:42 minute original “I’m Cold And I’m Wondering.” Full of sad introspection, the song features Dave Rice on an emotional piano/organ middle bridge.
Picking things up to mid-tempo, the band romps and rolls on the BB King popularized, Peter Chapman penned, “Everyday I Have The Blues.” With guitar licks inspired by the “King,” Johnson shows why he is respected by audiences everywhere. Carlos takes a moment near mid song to introduce the band members prior to taking a set break.
Track 7 continues with a lush instrumental arrangement of R. Benson’s “What’s Going On.” Johnson punctuates his phrases with some of the sharpest and highest notes on the album.
In tribute to fellow lefty, the late Albert King, Carlos and the boys throw down an 8:48 minute version of “Don’t Throw Your Love On Me So Strong.”
Cut 9, the final track is the Mel London/Otis Rush collaboration, I Wonder Why.” At 10:59 minutes, the instrumental is a fitting closer. Prior to kicking it off, Carlos dedicates the song to Otis Rush (“He’s a little under the weather...he’s at home. His thoughts are with us.”) and Rush’s wife, Masaki.
You may have to special order this album, but it is worth it to hear such a fluid, tasteful player who should make mere string shredders weep in shame