Dusty Brown | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

Dusty Brown 

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In the 1950s Chicago produced such an extraordinary number of talented blues artists that many who might have been stars in less heady times never rose above the second tier; harpist Dusty Brown was among them. Born in Mississippi, he moved here in the mid-40s and by the early 50s was gigging with his own band in clubs like Lover's Lounge, at Madison and Paulina. He recorded a handful of sides for the Parrot and Bandera labels, but by the mid-60s, when gigs dried up for all but the A-list bluesmen, he'd pretty much retired. He enjoyed a brief career resurgence in the early 70s, including a tour of France in 1972, but since then his local appearances have mostly been limited to increasingly infrequent guest shots at north-side clubs--by his own reckoning he hasn't headlined a show in at least 15 years. On his Bandera singles from 1958, neither the primitive production nor the sparse, generic 12-bar backing can detract from his sophisticated, unerringly precise harp work: he has a keen tone and a confident melodic sense, but he largely limits himself to crisp single notes and brief phrases, inserting each economical gesture at exactly the right instant with offhand ease. On up-tempo numbers his vocal phrasing borders on pugnacious, but on the slow blues "Please Don't Go" he smooths his slightly grainy, callow-sounding tenor into a vibrato-sweetened croon that foreshadows the soul balladeers who were to follow--in his best bedroom voice, he mutters, "C'mon, baby," while a guitar line slithers and curls behind him. A month ago I saw Brown sit in with Al Harris for a song or two at the California Clipper, and his harp playing is as fiery and exact as ever; his voice has thickened considerably, but his delivery is still supple and expressive. These dates aren't the start of a comeback--Brown has told me he's happy to stay away from the hurly-burly of the club circuit--so we may not get another chance to see this vital, undeservedly obscure bluesman for a long time. Friday and Saturday, February 15 and 16, 10 PM, California Clipper, 1002 N. California; 773-384-2547.

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