Saturday, February 16, 2008

Live at Rosa’s Blues Lounge reviewed by Mark Thompson

Live at Rosa’s Blues Lounge
Little Arthur Duncan
Delmark Records
15 tracks/65:09

Delmark continues its series of live recordings at one of Chicago’s best blues clubs. This time around the spotlight is on Little Arthur Duncan, a journeyman musician whose long career has flown under the radar for all but the most knowledgeable fans. That changed several years ago when Arthur’s first Delmark release featuring his vocals and harp playing garnered him worldwide attention.

A native of Mississippi, Duncan made to Chicago in the early 1950’s, landing an apartment in the same building Little Walter was residing in at the time. Walter mentored Arthur on playing the harmonica, which helped Duncan secure steady work in the numerous bars featuring live blues music. Eventually Duncan took over ownership of his own club, where he would sit in with band for a few numbers as business permitted. Eventually Duncan was forced to close his establishment, a move that led to him deciding to reestablish his musical career.

Given his age, Duncan’s voice is still in good shape. Early in the proceedings, he announces that he is going to sit down, not because he is lazy but because he is old !! His range is limited but he compensates by singing with a conviction and spirit that enliven his hard-edged vocals. On harp, he plays with a solid tone. Duncan does not have the virtuoso technique of Little Walter. His style finds him using the harp to complement what the band is doing and not blow an endless stream of solos.

The backing musicians – Illinois Slim and Rick Kreher on guitar, Michael Azzi on bass and Twist Turner on drums – are totally in tune with Duncan. On the up-tempo tracks like “I Got To Go” and “ Young Fashioned Ways”, they consistently provide a driving rhythmic foundation that had to inspire Duncan. They are equally adept at handling the shuffles and can inject plenty of emotion into slow blues tracks like “Blues with a Feeling”.

Duncan contributes four original tunes starting with the opener, “Leaving Mississippi” which gets the disc off to a rousing start. “Bad Reputation” borrows a classic guitar line from Howlin’ Wolf’s version of “Shake for Me” and it works just as well for Duncan. The rest of disc consists of covers of well-worn tunes like “Little Red Rooster” and “I Got Love if You Want It” interspersed with less-known gems like Jimmy Reed’s “Pretty Thing” and “I Got to Find My Baby”, which features guest Little Al Thomas on the vocal.

For more than an hour, Little Arthur and his band manage to keep the blues gritty and real in front of a live audience. You once could hear true down-home blues like this on bandstands all over Chicago. The unfortunate reality is that there are a dwindling number of musicians capable of playing together with this much feeling and honesty. This disc reminds us that blues music is not always pretty and neat. In the hands of a veteran like Little Arthur, it can be played with gusto and still sound just right.

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