Duke Robillard | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

Duke Robillard 

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Duke Robillard has been defying trends for decades. In 1967 the Rhode Island guitarist formed Roomful of Blues, a brawny, horn-heavy band that provided an antidote to the incense-addled Summer of Love blues-rock scene: instead of jamming indulgently on themes swiped from Chicago jukes, like many of the era's more famous groups, Robillard and company leaned toward deft, economical arrangements of sophisticated Texas-California smooth blues. I saw Roomful accompany Muddy Waters in Connecticut in the mid-70s, a few years before Robillard struck out on his own, and even in that setting the band stuck to its uptown sound, burnishing Waters's gritty baritone roar with rich horn textures and goosing his primal Chicago shuffle with a punchy swing. Robillard played with a disciplined linearity and harmonic precision reminiscent of T-Bone Walker, but he was hardly polite--his leads were sharp and aggressive enough to hold their own alongside Waters's gut-piercing slide patterns. Now, after the demise of the 90s neoswing movement--a fashion-driven fad dominated by soulless jump blues--its audience ought to be primed to appreciate the real deal. But rather than play to that crowd Robillard has changed gears, releasing one of the rawest, rootsiest albums of his career, Living With the Blues (Stony Plain). Beginning with the opening bars of the first cut, the 1970 Little Milton hit "If Walls Could Talk," he dirties up his tone and his style: his fretwork alternates between hard-chopped chords and searing leads that sound like they've been cut from the melody with a pocketknife. On "Good Time Charlie," a 1966 Bobby "Blue" Bland tune, Robillard's band affects a popping, funky New Orleans strut as his leads churn, roll, and hiccup over the top. His hollow-toned acoustic picking on the Tampa Red chestnut "Hard Road" adds a deep Delta resonance to the slide master's urbane style, but on Freddie King's "Use What You Got"--a longtime live standby--he actually plays a lot like King, combining clean gulf coast dexterity with blustery Chicago crunch. The disc's only drawback is Robillard's mannered vocals--a reminder that Roomful of Blues always sounded best backing up a singer like Waters, Big Joe Turner, or Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson. Saturday, June 22, 10 PM, Buddy Guy's Legends, 754 S. Wabash; 312-427-0333.

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

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