Sleepy LaBeef | Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

Sleepy LaBeef 

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SLEEPY LABEEF

Honky-tonk legend Sleepy LaBeef never managed to cash in on the 80s rockabilly minirevival--but then, he's never cashed in on anything in his life. It's both LaBeef's blessing and his curse to be saddled with the kind of integrity that's as difficult to transform into a commodity as it is to squelch. His earliest recordings, in the late 50s, were in-house jobs for radio stations along the Texas-Mexico border; he also cut for obscure southwestern labels like Gulf, Finn, and Crescent. He signed with Columbia in 1964 and a few years later became part of record mogul Shelby Singleton's attempt to revive the Sun label, but the closest thing he's ever had to a hit was "Blackland Farmer," which made some noise on the country charts back in 1971. LaBeef's window-rattling baritone, his bare-bones but passionate way with guitar, piano, and fiddle, and the very breadth of his musical vision cut through contemporary brat-pack C and W like a bowie knife: he's capable of raucous hillbilly ribaldry one minute and a transcendent version of a country spiritual like Tom T. Hall's "May the Good Lord Never Show You the Back of His Hand" the next, and his estimated 6,000-song repertoire encompasses blues, R & B, folk, and gospel, as well as novelty chestnuts that defy categorization. Stolidly gazing out into the audience from behind the heavy lids that earned him his nickname, LaBeef embodies not only the artistic and spiritual legacy but also the resolute and visionary individualism of the best of the blues, country, and rock 'n' roll. Friday, 9:30 PM, B.L.U.E.S. Etcetera, 1124 W. Belmont; 773-525-8989. DAVID WHITEIS

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Barry Berenson.

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