Vance Kelly & the Backstreet Blues Band | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

Vance Kelly & the Backstreet Blues Band 

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Since the mid-90s guitarist Vance Kelly has been affiliated with Wolf, an Austrian label known as much for its seat-of-the-pants production values as its dedication to showcasing unheralded blues talent. Although critically well received, Kelly's output for Wolf has never shown the breadth of his musical range or the emotional heat he's capable of generating; his latest, Live at Lee's Unleaded Blues, recorded at the fabled south-side nightclub in 1999, doesn't do him justice either, but it's a step in the right direction. Kelly's voice is supple, resonant, and shot through with ache; his fretwork is harmonically and tonally adventurous, moving freely between southern-fried soul stylings and searing post-60s electric blues. But given his abilities and his band's professionalism, couldn't Wolf have found a better opening track than a stunted rendition of Bobby "Blue" Bland's 1985 hit "Members Only"? The horns are out of tune, Kelly's solo is uncharacteristically overwrought, and the doo-wop-style harmonies on the chorus are nearly inaudible. The set also ends feebly, with a perfunctory reading of "The Thrill Is Gone," one of the most overcooked chestnuts in the modern blues canon. In between, however, are some fine moments. Kelly delivers Johnnie Taylor's "Doing My Own Thing" with a winning mix of wit and outrage, and the string-bending on his own "Tell Me Why" is saved from sounding like a post-B.B. King cliche by the propulsive impetus of his lines and the intensity of his attack. In A.C. Reed's "She's Fine," Kelly's solo threatens to break the boundaries of the melody, then pulls back into assonance at the last moment; it's a trick that revitalizes what could easily have been dreary 12-bar boilerplate. Vance Kelly & the Backstreet Blues Band usually play every Wednesday at Rosa's, but aside from this performance they're on hiatus until November 19. Saturday, November 1, 9:30 PM, Rosa's Lounge, 3420 W. Armitage; 773-342-0452.

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

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