Willie King | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

Willie King 

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If Gil Scott-Heron were a down-home bluesman, he'd probably sound a lot like guitarist Willie King. King, who hails from Old Memphis, Alabama, shares the poet's conviction that it's easier to persuade folks to think once you've got them dancing: his "struggling songs" use propulsive, good-timey grooves as a backdrop for lyrics that tackle issues of race and class head-on. King often speaks as a sort of historical black everyman--a slave, a sharecropper, a ghetto dweller--to give a specific shape to the oppression and psychic devastation endured by African-Americans. Freedom Creek, his 2000 Rooster Blues debut, included "The Sell-Out," "Clean Up the Ghetto," and the scathing "Uncle Tom"; his latest Rooster release, Living in a New World, carries on with "Crawlin' Blues," "Is It My Imagination," and "Terrorized." Despite these grim titles, King's vision is one of hope: In "The Sell-Out" he resists disillusionment when another black man betrays him, instead deciding, "No more civil rights / From now on, I'm talkin' about the human rights." And in "America" he sings, "You got the front, I got your back / And with a love like that, we gon' stay right on track." The music is subversive too--dark, sensual, and almost out of control, it makes north-side tourist-trap boogie sound as cliched and toothless as it is. King's jagged leads sound like the wildlife in some primeval bayou, and his band, the Liberators, grinds and undulates behind him like a circle of sorcerers trying to raise a demon from a bonfire. His vocals range from a choked moan to a defiant roar, and his various guitar styles--single-note drones reminiscent of John Lee Hooker and Howlin' Wolf, slow-grinding 12-bar shuffles, dirty two-chord southern-soul vamps--all share an unadorned, homemade feel. Living in a New World, like everything King does, seems aimed to demonstrate that struggling for justice and celebrating life are one and the same, and to drive the point home he breaks out his most frenzied growl on "The Stomper," a swaggering, Hooker-esque romp that evokes a down-and-dirty night of partying at Bettie's Place, a juke in Prairie Point, Mississippi, where he holds forth most weekends. Friday, June 21, 9:30 PM, and Saturday, June 22, 10 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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