Big Jack Johnson | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

Big Jack Johnson 

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BIG JACK JOHNSON

Big Jack Johnson may not be the kind of Delta bluesman to howl at the devil, but his brand of good-time music can be as serious as hellfire--with his bearlike stage presence and hoarse, raucous singing, the Mississippi-born guitarist does juke-party boogies with the urgency and commitment of a true believer. Johnson's guitar tone is brilliant and metallic, and he punctuates his leads with wide-open chords, often fretted high to give them extra bite. Even at its wildest, his playing is thoughtful: he adds texture by varying the intensity of his picking and the range of his string bends, and he'll alternately climb up to or tumble down into the same melodic idea. Roots Stew (M.C.), his most recent CD with his regular band, the Oilers, features hot-blooded romps like "Jump for Joy"--a song in praise of a hot woman with a hot new set of wheels, on which Johnson's solo sounds like T-Bone Walker in overdrive. Johnson's raunchy instrumental take on Ivory Joe Hunter's "Since I Met You Baby" showcases his caterwauling slide guitar and chords that shake like Jell-O; on "Late Night With Jack" he and his bandmates trade thick, pot-liquor blues riffs over a loping 12-bar beat. In keeping with Johnson's ability to combine a positive message with emotional intensity, the disc's most solemn moment is also its most warmhearted. Back in 1996, the guitarist recorded "Frank Frost Blues" with the Jelly Roll Kings, a trio with harpist Frost and drummer Sam Carr, warning his longtime friend to "lay your bottle down." Frost didn't quit drinking until it was too late, though, and died a few years later. Here, on "So Long Frank Frost"--a tune he played at Frost's funeral--Johnson warns us to "keep your grip packed...you don't know when the good Lord's gonna call you home." But the song's about as optimistic as a final good-bye can be: he recites a list of departed blues immortals, adds Frost to their number, and assures him that "the Lord's got a band up there, too." The Oilers will accompany Johnson at this show. Friday, April 13, 9 PM, B.L.U.E.S., 2519 N. Halsted; 773-528-1012.

DAVID WHITEIS

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/James Fraher.

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