Blues never better at hands of 4 greats
“This is history we’re making tonight,” Barrelhouse Chuck told the crowd in HotHouse over the weekend, and he was not exaggerating.
Four of the city’s top piano players were marking the release of their exceptional new recording, “8 Hands on 88 Keys” (on The Sirens label), and they reminded listeners how deep this city’s blues piano-playing legacy runs.
To hear the 88-year-old Pinetop Perkins unfurl slow, rolling blues – his gravelly vocals accompanied by an orchestral keyboard style – was to savor the authentic sound of the Mississippi Delta bluesmen who influenced him in his youth. And when Perkins launched into up-tempo showpieces, such as Down in Mississippi, he played with a technical bravura that few keyboardists of his vintage could match.
Modern-day listeners may associate Every Day I Have The Blues with another great Chicagoan, the late Joe Williams, but Detroit Junior made it his own with the surging tempo and exuberance of spirit that are his trademarks. Moreover, there was soft-spoken sorrow in Trouble In Mind and self-deprecating humor in the classic If I Hadn’t Been High.
As if to underscore the continuity among several generations of Chicago blues players, Detroit Junior sang one number to the accompaniment of pianist Erwin Helfer in a tune the two men co-authored, Ain’t Nobody’s Business. The duo traded phrases as if they were in church, Detroit Junior’s declamatory vocals answered by Helfer’s exquisitely ornamented right-hand filigree.
Helfer played one of the most sublimely understated sets this listener has heard from him, the pianist more than once bringing the crowd to a hush. He made Avery Parish’s After Hours into a kind of blues rhapsody built on a lushly voiced chords and an unusually languorous tempo. There were palpable melancholy in Helfer’s rendition of 4 O’ Clock Blues and a ray of sunshine in a boogie version of Swanee River.
The youngster in the bunch, a middle-aged Barrelhouse Chuck held his own in exalted company. In one piece after another, Barrlehouse Chuck displayed a splendid, all-over-the-keyboard style and an uncommonly effective baritone voice. If his right-hand tremolos recalled Sunnyland Slim on It’s You Baby, his rumbling vocals lent gravity to blues anthems of Floyd Jones and Leroy Carr.
Helfer and Barrelhouse Chuck paired up to play at a brisker clip than one might have thought possible on an ebullient, two-piano version of Chicken Shack Boogie. Though the duet would have been more effective if both pianists were playing grand pianos, Barrelhouse Chuck drew plenty of thunder from an otherwise soft-spoken upright, the pianist shrewdly banging out two-fisted, high register chords whenever Detroit Junior paused for a beat or two.
In all, an exceptional night, Chicago-style.”
- Howard Reich