Dave Specter, with Tad Robinson, Jimmy Johnson and Sharon Lewis
Live in Chicago
Delmark DVD DVD1794

Live in Chicago was recorded and filmed at two of Chicago’s leading blues clubs in August 2007, Buddy Guy’s Legends on Aug. 2 and Rosa’s Blues Lounge on Aug. 20. This DVD features live performances from one of Chicago’s most acclaimed younger blues guitarists, Dave Specter, with his band and special vocal guests Tad Robinson, Jimmy Johnson and Sharon Lewis performing in sets of solid, soulful contemporary Chicago blues.

"Specter plays rhythm guitar and adds tasty lead guitar solos on both the Robinson and Johnson sets."

Specter himself doesn’t sing, but he composes and performs original instrumentals, as well as contribute substantive lead guitar with the vocalists he backs up. He is a versatile guitarist familiar with a host of genres, which he’s demonstrated on Delmark recordings going back over 17 years and can range from jazzlike offerings á là Kenny Burrell to blues in the style of Freddie King. On Live in Chicago, as James Porter rightfully notes in the notes to this DVD, Specter is “tilting toward soul and bluesified funk.”

This DVD has been out since February, but since I don’t have a DVD player, I had to make arrangements with my friend Dave to watch it. Dave formerly lived in Chicago before moving back to our present home of Indianapolis, and he saw many of the blues greats live while he was there, and enhances my writing of this review with his incisive comments to me as we watched.

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Specter reminded Dave of Pee Wee Crayton and Freddie King, and in the harmonica playing of Tad Robinson he saw strong echoes of West Coast harpmaster William Clarke. He’d also seen Johnson several times live in Chicago, up close. He found the DVD to be a solid offering, and I agree: most workmanlike, both in the playing and in the filming, an agreeable DVD that records two most agreeable blues performances that are typical of current Chicago club offerings. Which means that all of the songs are long, extended performances that range in length from five minutes to nearly eight.

"The best vocal segment is that of Robinson, a soul-blues artist who now is resident of, yes, Greencastle, who started his career in Chicago."

Specter performs four instrumentals on Live in Chicago, all originals. Two of these open the segments for each of the sessions featured. “Boss Funk/Riverside Ride” opens for the Buddy Guy’s Legends segment, and “Hollywood Park Shuffle” opens for the Rosa’s Blues Lounge segment, where they play over shots of the bar, its memorabilia and photos of the blues greats that have been there. The Freddie King-like “Texas Top” is played in the Buddy Guy’s Legends segment, between the vocal sets of Robinson and Johnson, and “Is What It Is,” a Meters-like funk number that Specter recorded first on an album with guitarist Steve Freund, follows “Hollywood Park Shuffle” on the Rosa’s segment. The Buddy Guy’s Legends segment is the longer, comprising eight vocal and instrumental tracks to Rosa’s five.

The best vocal segment is that of Robinson, a soul-blues artist who now is resident of, yes, Greencastle, who started his career in Chicago. He does three excellent vocals here, two originals: the slow love lament, “What Love Did To Me” and the wry, funky observation on hustling and being hustled, “What’s Your Angle?” On both of these he plays amplified chromatic harp in a most solid and substantial fashion, but also has a harp break on “What Love Did To Me” using the amplified Marine Band as well. Sandwiched in-between is a number Robinson introduces as “country soul,” Tom T. Hall’s “How I Got To Memphis,” which is Robinson’s best vocal in the set, movingly emotional with a long crying ending, but only the best in what is a very good set indeed.

Robinson is one of the best soul-blues artists around. He recorded with Specter and others for Delmark earlier in his career. Today he records for Severn, and two of his albums on that label have been nominated as Best Soul Blues Album of the Year for the Blues Music Awards given annually in Memphis. Robinson’s blues are in that Bobby Bland/ Junior Parker Memphis groove, and within that genre, his emphasis on harp playing makes him especially stand out as a player.

"Sharon Lewis, who does three vocals on the Rosa’s segment, is an exciting blues diva with a style that combines elements of both Koko Taylor and Etta James."

Jimmy Johnson, on the other hand, is definitely contemporary electric Chicago blues, and, at 79 when he recorded here, among the last of the black Chicago masters still alive. He introduced his set by affirming, “I love blues, barbecue and pretty girls.” He does three blues standards on Live in Chicago, Jimmy Rogers’s “Out On The Road,” Chuck Willis’s “Feel So Bad,” which has been extensively recorded, and Willie Cobb’s “You Don’t Love Me,” in which Johnson modifies the lyrics and adds the well-known verse from “Matchbox Blues” that begins with the pointed query, “I’m sittin’ here wonderin’/ Would a matchbox hold my clothes?”

“Out On The Road” is Johnson’s best song here, masterfully highlighting his signature multi-note guitar playing and high, gospel-inflected soul-blues voice, both of which are much less prominent on the other two tracks.

Specter plays rhythm guitar and adds tasty lead guitar solos on both the Robinson and Johnson sets, with Johnson also adding a compelling solo on “Out On The Road.”

Sharon Lewis, who does three vocals on the Rosa’s segment, is an exciting blues diva with a style that combines elements of both Koko Taylor and Etta James. She does two self-penned original vocals, the first being the caught-my-man-cheating “In Too Deep,” which she introduces as “based on a true story.” Her session ends with a long gospel number, “Angel,” that, while it graces a blues bar here, could just as easily grace the service of a black Baptist church, and in-between is the blues standard, “Every Goodbye Ain’t Gone,” another bad-man lament. Lewis is a long-time friend of Specter’s, whom he’s played with for years, but her appearance here evidently marks her recording debut.

Specter’s band features two veterans of the Chicago scene, bassist Harlan Terson and drummer Marty Binder, and an exciting young player Brother John Kattke on keyboards. Kattke plays blues piano throughout on the Buddy Guy’s Legends session, and organ on Sharon Lewis’s “In Too Deep” and “Angel.” His playing is sheer delight.

As is the production of this DVD, which combines elements of both an MTV video in its cinematic collages, different-angle and close-up filming, and essay-composing, but also those of a straight-ahead concert filming. Live in Chicago is solidly workmanlike and an absorbing DVD to both listen to and watch. The DVD contains three bonus tracks not available on the CD version, Delmark DE 794.

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GravelRoad and the Dark Blues
Shot the Devil
Uncle Larry’s Records 2008

Seattle’s GravelRoad self-describes its music as the “dark blues,” influenced by “dark blues masters” Junior Kimbrough, R.L. Burnside, T-Model Ford and Mississippi Fred McDowell, and its second CD, Shot the Devil, is an exploration into the darker side of life through a blues music that’s built around classic Z.Z. Top riffs and adds elements of grunge and angry punk to create a sound that’s most amiably listenable. For this trio is indeed most original and compelling, with its own approach that partakes of the above, but doesn’t simply clone them.

"Seattle’s GravelRoad self-describes its music as the 'dark blues.'"

GravelRoad’s original songwriting throughout this CD, based on the traditional themes of the blues but brings them home to our desperate times with a note of angry desperation, is exemplified well in the gravelly baritone vocals of lead singer and guitarist Stefan Zillioux. “Trainwreck” and “Taildragger,” for example, approach the bad-woman theme in a raucous new way, while “Forty-Four,” with its shoot-my-bad-woman-down theme, recalls Roosevelt Sykes’s “Forty-four Blues” and Yank Rachell’s “.38 Pistol.”

“Goin’ Home” is a reflection on death that vaguely recalls St. Louis Jimmy’s classic rumination on the subject, “Going Down Slow,” and most interesting, even Robert Johnson’s haunted-by-the-devil theme makes itself felt in GravelRoad’s music on two tracks here, “I Shot The Devil” and “Call My Name.”

Other songs on the CD are “Sammy,” on befriending the stranger who comes to town, and the rumination on the toughness of life, “Lonely Nights.” GravelRoad’s lyrics are direct and sparse, and several of the songs are only two verses long. The tracks on Shot the Devil also tend to be short, with eight of the tracks barely over two or three minutes long, although “Lonely Nights” is five minutes long, and “Goin’ Home” eight minutes. In addition, “Trainwreck” and “Goin’ Home” feature long instrumental introductions, giving Shot the Devil an interesting feel in its overall composition.

"Shot the Devil is a most interesting and exciting contemporary CD to listen to in its combination of grunge and punk influences with the blues."

Three of the tracks on Shot the Devil’s 11 track are instrumentals: the opening track built loosely but prominently on a Z.Z. Top riff, “Fred #3,” the barely-over-one-minute-long frenetic Hendrix-sounding “Hair Of The Dog,” and the ending track, “Bad Dog Remix (by Specs One),” which intermixes the guitar playing with a chorus of “Bad dog, bad dog” and recorded dog yelps.

While much of GravelRoad’s guitar playing is built loosely around classic Z.Z. Top riffs, notably from “Lagrange,” “Legs” and “Jesus Just Left Chicago,” that isn’t the whole story of this trio’s guitar playing, which not only features Zillioux, but also second guitarist Joe Kirby Newman (who also plays bass), while drummer Martin Reinsel rounds out the group. “Sammy,” for example, features an acoustic train-chugging riff on the solo guitar, while “Goin’ Home” is played traditional Mississippi Delta-style on solo electric slide guitar.

There are guest appearances by Sean Bates on Fender Rhodes and clavinet keyboards on “Call My Name” and “Lonely Nights,” and Maria Berg adds her high-pitched background vocals to “Call My Name” as well.

Shot the Devil is a most interesting and exciting contemporary CD to listen to in its combination of grunge and punk influences with the blues. And despite the dark thematic note to the songs, this is not at all a depressing CD to listen to. GravelRoad expresses itself and the blues in a new musical way, and brings a compelling originality to an old and venerable tradition.

George Fish can be reached at georgefish666@yahoo.com.