Fred Johnson & the Checkmates Featuring Pee Wee Madison | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

Fred Johnson & the Checkmates Featuring Pee Wee Madison 

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FRED JOHNSON & THE CHECKMATES FEATURING PEE WEE MADISON

Soul-flavored blues belter Fred Johnson has top billing, but guitarist James "Pee Wee" Madison--making a rare north-side appearance--is the real attraction here. He began his career as a harmonica player in the 50s, accompanying folks like guitarist Eddie C. Campbell; after switching to guitar himself, Madison played in Muddy Waters's superb band for nearly a decade, serving as a foil for fellow guitarist Sammy Lawhorn: while Lawhorn crafted complex chords and shimmering single-string filigrees, Madison simply erupted, his raw solos cutting instinctively to the heart of a melody with a tone like the shriek of a hawk. Since he left that job in '73, he's kept a low profile, gigging on and off at neighborhood venues on the south side; in recent years he's played most often at the Celebrity Lounge on Cottage Grove with Johnson and his band, the Checkmates. Aside from a few cameos on other people's records, his studio output is virtually nil--he's never released an album under his own name. He just about personifies that hoariest of blues cliches, the Forgotten Legend Toiling in Obscurity, but you get the feeling he likes it that way. His demeanor is curiously withdrawn: he hunches over his guitar, his eyes downcast, his face expressionless, as if he doesn't want to invite attention. When he fires off one of his jagged solos, though, all the musical energy onstage seems to flow through his fingers. Friday, 9:30 PM, Rosa's Lounge, 3420 W. Armitage; 773-342-0452. Madison also plays with Johnson and the Checkmates at 9 PM this Saturday at the Celebrity Lounge, 4830 S. Cottage Grove; 773-285-8353. DAVID WHITEIS

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

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