Golden "Big" Wheeler
It's been a helluva long time since anyone has dared to market a record of such unadorned and insistently laid-back blues. But then Delmark has always been more a hobby of love than a source of income for owner Bob Koester. And while the listener who needs adrenal stimulation will need to look elsewhere, deep blues fans will find much to delight in.
Golden Wheeler has been a Chicago fixture for the past four decades, though it wasn't until 1993 that he recorded his Delmark debut. He spent most of those intervening years at a day job and raising a family. His family roots include several generations of musicians, including younger brother and long-time Otis Rush accomplice James Wheeler, who deftly plays a variety of guitar styles on this set.
Consistent with his musical philosophy, the elder Wheeler's harp playing is characterized by tongue-blocked chords and a spare, laid-back approach. Similarly, his tonally-even vocals often seem more spoken then sung but convey great warmth of feeling and character nonetheless. The rest of the band consists of the cream of Chicago's veteran sidemen. In addition to the younger Wheeler, Bob Stroger on bass and Baldhead Pete on drums are seamlessly locked-in-step, while pianist Allen Batts is everywhere adding intricate fills and stylish solos.
Wheeler penned seven of the dozen tracks, including an eight-minute plaintive blues classic, "Chicago Winter Weather Blues." A cover of Willie Mabon's "Guilty" is one of a handful of highlights, with Batts playing Mabon's trademark stop-time style and Big Wheeler following suit on the low end of a chromatic harp. A grandfather's now clichéd concerns about the disrespectful young are expressed on "Younger Generation." The band closes with a rollicking rendition of Wheeler's friend and erstwhile mentor Little Walter's "You're So Fine."
While some of today's stars have been busy recreating the tone and feel of the classic post-war blues, one can't help but bless the good fortune of being able to hear one of the "old guys" do it the way it's supposed to be!
-- Jack Oudiz