The Rockin' Johnny Band
Straight Out of Chicago
Delmark 720
Chicago may not be the home of the blues it once was, but it remains about the only place left where a youngster can experience the kind of apprenticeship that Johnny Burgin and his bandmates have been serving the past eight years. Not quite 30 yet, Burgin has lived and breathed the blues while playing behind mentors like Taildragger, Sam Lay, Dave Myers, Robert Plunkett, Golden Wheeler, Big Smokey Smothers and Jimmie Lee Robinson. The band recently also backed Jimmy Burns on his critically applauded Delmark album.

Like several generations of white blues aspirants before them, Burgin and his band (a k a the La-Z-Boys) honed their skills in gritty West Side clubs under the tutelage of the city's older black artists (who still catch flak from some quarters for employing fair-skinned musicians).

Rockin' Johnny's debut album is shared with Plunkett, the Taildragger (James Jones) and Lay, each of whom takes a turn in the spotlight on about half of the album's 14 tracks. Burgin handles the vocals on the opening third and does a credible job for someone who probably doesn't consider himself a singer. His fluid tenor style owes much to the influence of Plunkett, and though he sometimes sounds a bit thin, age and experience should fortify his delivery.

His guitar playing, on the other hand, is mature way beyond his years, a precocious assimilation of the vernacular of Chicago blues circa 1963. As Burgin explains in his refreshingly self-revealing liner notes: "My own playing is mostly early '60s like Jimmy Dawkins, Hip Linkchain, Luther Tucker, Fenton Robinson, Earl Hooker." He's also learned a lot from older guys like Billy Flynn and former Muddy Waters sideman Rick Kreher -- who also plays rhythm guitar on much of the album -- two of the best (and nicest) musicians in town.

The music holds no surprises: just straight-ahead, no-nonsense, shuffle-based Chicago blues. Martin Lang provides the requisite Little Walter harp leads, including "Stompin' at the Fishmarket," a tribute to the classic Walter instrumentals. Among the handful of new material is "Undercover Lover," a clever tune with a surfin' blues tang. Here as elsewhere, Burgin shows a sixth sense for building irresistible tension in his leads. He plays off of a Jody Williams "Lucky Lou" riff on "Confusion Blues," which is also notable for some frantic bass riffing by young Sho Komiya.

Robert Plunkett, once a drummer with Elmore James, plies his husky, down-home tenor on one of his former boss's lesser-known tunes, "Stranger Blues," and Burgin absolutely nails the tone and delicacy of James' slide playing. When the Taildragger takes over for three tracks, things really heat up. The La-Z-Boys have been playing behind him every week for several years now and the synergism is evident. Taildragger's feral energy and Howlin' Wolf vocal delivery cut loose for a torrid, seven-minute rendition of Sonny Boy Williamson's "Sugar Mama." Sam Lay resurrects John Lee Hooker's classic, "I Wanna Boogie" with grainy fierceness, but the endless boogie wears thin over the eight-and-a-half minute length. Burgin closes the set with an instrumental tribute to Jimmy Dawkins (it's about time someone did!) that again features inventive bass playing by Mr. Komiya.

Johnny Burgin and his cohorts (including drummer Kenny Smith, son of Willie Smith) show a great sensitivity to the subtleties of Chicago blues and are making their mark as some of the best of the young players in town. The challenge in years ahead will be to carve out their own style and move the blues forward.

-- Jack Oudiz

This page and all contents are © 1998 by Blues Access,
Boulder, CO, USA.