Sunday, September 05, 2010

Chicago Blues, Portraits and Stories - David Whiteis

This book has a different take on Chicago blues than most - David Whiteis showcases the modern age city and highlights stories of almost unknown current (or reasonably current) blues and blues influenced artists. He also talks of particular clubs and areas that are important to the scene and tries to show the continuing evolution of Chicago blues and its proponents.

While Whiteis eventually spent decades in the blues scene and came to know the players personally, he admits to being spectacularly naive about the music and musicians in general when he first arrived in Chicago. One if his first tales is shudderingly condescending - he meets Jr. Wells in a club - though he doesn't specify the time, it appears to be in the 80's - and expects him to be impressed and flattered that a young white man knows who he is! As if he were one of the first at this late date and time! He later meets some local artists and is surprised to find out that blues musicians would like to make money playing music! Apparently, he had never met a musician in his life before this. I don't think there is a serious musician alive that doesn't want to make a living playing the music they love. His descriptions of the dive bars that the bands play in also seem to show that he was never involved in an independent music scene in any city, as these sound like places that any punk band would play in.

Once you get past his naivety and some music critic excesses, it does seem like his heart is in the right place and, according to his stories, he became close to many of the local musicians and people on the scene and wants to document their lives and struggles. He finds interesting characters and gives you a real feel for the people, their families, their music and the pitfalls they stumble into.

Again showing the similarities of the local blues scene with any other independent scene is the participants' argument that if they got more radio airplay, the music would be more popular. This is true enough, but no one should expect the ultra conservative radio and record industries to open themselves up to anything new. It is always a shock when they do and the truth of this theory has been proved on a number of occasions - Nirvana, Green Day, hell, even the Black Crowes - but that doesn't make it any more likely to happen again.

His wrap-up gives the pros and cons for the current state of the blues and essentially says that if music wasn't put into such strict genres these days, then more sounds would be thought of as the blues. True enough, as the blues has influenced most American music that has come after it, but if you take that to an extreme, you could call punk rock blues music, which is silly. Modern r'n'b and hip-hop can certainly be compared to blues and shares some characteristics, but it would be a stretch for them all to share the same label. And, of course, some people are crossing and mashing up genres, which is good and healthy, but doesn't necessarily say anything about the state of the blues, as the genre is generally understood, in today's society.

I'm being overly critical here myself as overall, the book is interesting and informative for those interested in the scene in Chicago long past its hey-day. Don't come looking for tales of the big stars that came from Chi-town, but if you want a feel for the trials and tribulations of local musicians, this is a good read.