Features and Reviews
Windy City Blues Rock OTMH
By Eric Marchese
Robbie Rhodes, Carl Sonny Leyland and Bob Pinsker brought a program of "Windy City Blues" to Old Town Music Hall Sunday evening, October 3, delivering everything from ragtime, cakewalks and blues to boogie, jazz and even a performance tied in with a piano roll recording.
Robbie launched things with "Pekin Rag" and "That Teasin' Rag" by Chicago composer and real estate enterpreneur Joe Jordan. Next up was Jimmy Blythe's "Carolina Stomp" and Clarence Johnson's "Don't Mind Crying Blues." All were lively renditions replete with Robbie's trademark piano-roll stylings.
Taking up his violin, Bob and Robbie duetted on Blythe's "Little Bits," which the composer originally recorded with a pickup band. Bob provided the evening's framework by noting that Chicago really was the major city for ragtime, blues and boogie going back as early as 1893. At the Boesendorfer, Bob rendered "Heliotrope Bouquet," pulled together and co-composed by Scott Joplin from a visit to Chicago with friend Louis Chauvin in 1906, during the last year of Chauvin's life. A medley combined several pieces by Chicago songwriters Spencer Williams and Shelton Brooks: "Some Of These Days," "Shim-Me-Sha-Wobble," "Walking the Dog" and "Arkansas Blues," the latter with a boogie bass and bluesy treble. Bob then closed his set with Blythe's "Jimmy Blues," whose relaxed-sounding opening theme is offset by its boogie trio.
Carl Sonny opened his set with Dan Burley's "Green Diamond Blues," a slow blues song, singing it in his inimitable down-home blues style, then offered more blues with "Suitcase Blues," one of only two recorded pieces by Hersal Thomas, a transplanted Texan whose Chicago performances were legendary -- and who died at age 16. A real treat was Jimmie Yancey's "White Sox Stomp," a driving, propulsive boogie, followed by a boogie-style version of "Kitten on the Keys," whose composer, Zez Confrey, was born in Peru, Illinois, got his music education in Chicago, then wound up as the star pianist and arranger for QRS, one of Chicago's several piano roll companies. Carl Sonny certainly captures the authentic sound of Chicago blues and boogie, living up to the name given him by Bob: "Mr. Chicago."
The show's first half ended with Bob opening the 1897 cakewalk/patrol "Mississippi Rag," composed by William Krell, a white Chicago bandleader. Bob was soon joined by Robbie on the Ampico grand piano. Near the end of the piece, Bob departed the stage, followed by Robbie, who finished the number -- first at the piano, finally whistling the tune while marching toward the lobby.
Bob opened the second half of the program with Blythe's "Armour Avenue Struggle," then loaded a roll recording disc into the Ampico for a hand-played roll performance by Lem Fowler of his "You've Got Everything a Sweet Mama Needs But Me." Bob sang along to the automated accompaniment, dedicating the tune to girlfriend and fellow music lover Lisa Richardson. Bob then produced a surprise guest, 16-year-old Andrew Barrett, from the audience, for a solo performance of Charley Straight's first big hit, "Hot Hands", a smooth, adept performance by the young man. Next, Bob performed "A Blue Streak," a song-like Novelty by Straight's colleague at Imperial Player Roll Company, Roy Bargy.
Robbie delivered the piano version of the J. Russel Robinson pop song "Lena, the Queen of Palestina," with its exotic, Oriental flavor; a smooth rendering of Bargy's intricate "Pianoflage," and Max Kortlander's 1919 Novelty "Blue Clover." Robbie and Carl Sonny duetted on F. Benton Overstreet's "There'll Be Some Changes Made," an example of the jumpy, propulsive style of jazz coming out of the Windy City in the late '20s. Carl Sonny's closing solo set began with Pinetop Smith's rockin' "Jump Steady Blues" and Lil Johnson's driving blues song "House Rent Scuffle," with Carl providing authentic, wailing vocals. He wrapped things up with Meade Lux Lewis' exciting, restless boogie/blues number "Honkytonk Train Blues" and Albert Ammons' "Boogie-Woogie Stomp," an involved, intricate piece made even more so by Carl's performance.
All three performers took us home with what Bob called "a stylistic modulation" on Brooks' immortal "Darktown Strutters' Ball," with Carl Sonny on the Boesendorfer, Bob providing vocals and playing violin, and Robbie playing the "blat horn" and the Ampico piano. Their rendering of the standard was simultaneously smooth, bluesy and upbeat, and all three musicians have plenty of Chicago-based material to almost guarantee a follow-up program at OTMH.