Leon McNeal | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

Leon McNeal 

Vocalist Leon McNeal has fronted bands on the south and west sides for the better part of 30 years, but he remains virtually unknown elsewhere in the city. On last year's Love Is a Gamble (Rose), a rough-hewn production that consists mostly of 12-bar blues set to a standard shuffle or goosed with funk, McNeal seems heavily influenced by the teen-oriented "soft soul" sound that evolved in Chicago in the 60s. He sings in a smooth, almost boyish timbre, his lyrics flow with conversational ease (he often doesn't even bother to rhyme them), and his untutored phrasing and enunciation heighten the sense of ingenuousness and immediacy. When he tells of his lifelong dreams of blues stardom in "I Got the Blues on My Mind," he sounds less like a performer than a buddy sharing his feelings; on "Early Monday Morning" he vows to "hire me a 'vestigator, find my woman somewhere" in a tremulous murmur, again evoking informal street-corner talk rather than polished stagecraft. But his tenor toughens up on the title tune, where he sounds like an experienced player resigned to losing but unable to give up the thrill of the game. And "It's a Bad Feeling," with its noirish minor-key horn chart, is a stark vignette of domestic heartbreak on which McNeal sustains a taut, quivering tone through the extended phrases and then descends into a desolate whisper as he concludes, "It's a bad, bad feelin' when you know your woman don't even love you / No matter what you do, nothin' just don't seem to be right." Saturday, May 31, 9 PM, Studio 79 Lounge, 1004 W. 79th; 773-483-7656.

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