Wild Child Butler | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

Wild Child Butler 

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He's been gigging all over the country since the 1950s, but blues harpist George "Wild Child" Butler hasn't budged an inch from the style he learned growing up in rural Alabama--where, he says, he made his first harmonica out of an old tobacco can half filled with gravel. On last year's Lickin' Gravy (M.C.), a reissue of a 1976 recording previously released on Rooster in '89, Butler's singing swings from a ballsy bull roar to a lecherous gurgle, its rawness tempered only slightly by a throaty vibrato, and his cadences grind like a shake dancer's hips; his lyrics ("I got to lick gravy / Your meat's too high to buy") and titles ("Funky Butt Lover") likewise fall on the far side of discreet. But there's more to this self-proclaimed "swamp-harp king" than dirty backwoods high jinks. He's a dexterous musician, blowing out raucous, serpentine phrases with a tone somewhere between Rice Miller's piercing wail and the saxophonelike honk of Little Walter. And though he can tie a double entendre in knots, he's also capable of tough social commentary ("Crack House Woman," from the 1992 Bullseye Blues disc These Mean Old Blues) and vivid poetic imagery ("Love Like a Butterfly," from the current release). Butler's famously stubborn about playing his own way--he still holds the harp upside down, like he first picked it up--and when the mood strikes him he'll suddenly take off in new rhythmic or melodic directions, giving his sidemen fits. But this raggedness only increases his music's primal power: it's rowdy as a late-license juke joint and greasy as sin. Friday, 9:30 PM, Buddy Guy's Legends, 754 S. Wabash; 312-427-0333. DAVID WHITEIS

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

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