Little Arthur Duncan & the Backscratchers | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

Little Arthur Duncan & the Backscratchers 

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Little Arthur Duncan is a throwback to a time before blues was elevated to the status of folk art--when it was still mainstream entertainment in working-class black communities. Born in Indianola, Mississippi, in 1934, Duncan migrated to Chicago when he was 16. He cites harp maestro Little Walter as a mentor, but his unburnished style is about as far from Walter's jazz-influenced progressivism as can be: his tone cuts like a blast of winter wind, and his improvisations tear a swath through the middle of a melody rather than embellishing it or prodding it in new directions. That doesn't entirely explain why he remained unrecognized for so long--comparably raw contemporaries like Easy Baby and Big John Wrencher had achieved international acclaim by the '70s--but since he cut Bad Reputation (Blues King) in 1989, Duncan's been making up for lost time. Though 1999's Singin' With the Sun (Delmark) provided a somewhat muted version of his juke-honed primitivism, on 2000's Live in Chicago! (Random Chance) he sounds ready to demolish everything within earshot and then dance in the rubble. And his keening tenor and ragged, wailing harp transform dark fare like Howlin' Wolf's "I Asked for Water" and the Delta standard "44 Blues" into raucous celebrations of the sporting life, in which betrayal and violence are merely another excuse to party. And on up-tempo originals like "Had Nowhere to Go" and "Going Through Mississippi" he bends and chokes the notes as if wrestling them into submission, then releases them into screaming flights of ecstatic dissonance. Tail Dragger and Little Al Thomas open. Saturday, February 7, 9 PM, American Legion Hall, 3916 W. Roosevelt; 773-722-4097 or 773-539-5001.

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