The characteristic lack of smoke and standing room at Clowes Hall was unseemly on Friday night given the talent present: The Fabulous Thunderbirds playing backing band to a line up of veteran blues musicians who had gathered to pay tribute to Chicago legends Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf. The event felt out of place in these surroundings, more opera house than blues bar.
But seeing older guys like big James Cotton and Bob Margolin (who, with his signature Ray Bans and balding ponytail, looks remarkably like Bleeding Gums Murphy) perform low-down dirty blues in a setting that ridiculously ostentatious - it just makes it all the more compelling.
Throughout the night, the musicians and the audience conspired to transform the setting into a rowdy Chicago night club. At the beginning of the first set, whistles and cheers erupted from the crowd when singer Kim Wilson sang the line, "I'm drinkin' TNT, I'm smokin' dynamite, I hope some screwball start a fight!"
Unfortunately, the smoke remained notably absent from the night's proceedings; regardless, The Fabulous Thunderbirds succeeded in keeping energy levels high.
When it comes to Wilson's harmonica playing, you have to hear it to understand how talented he is. With every note he plays, he produces deep, colorful overtones, occasionally drawing them out for an extended vibrato that lasts long enough to imply the kind of circular breathing used for playing a didgeridoo.
When you see Wilson play live, it becomes obvious why Muddy Waters spoke so fondly of him.
In addition to Mr. Margolin, guitarist Tinsley Ellis joined the band onstage for an exciting first set. The highlight of the show came when all but Wilson and Ellis left the stage and the two played a soulful rendition of "Little Red Rooster" with Ellis on acoustic slide. It was a captivating performance, so much so that members of the audience were literally howling from the balconies in response.
As the night progressed, the tone shifted between raucous and upbeat and something a little darker, with songs like "You Got To Take Sick and Die Some Of These Days" and "River's Invitation"; the second set was more dismal and subdued, featuring more of the latter and dominated by the older musicians, Mr. Cotton and Jody Williams, both age 77.
No other genre succeeds quite so well at paying tribute to its fallen, and doing it authentically. This part of the show was at once ominous and captivating -- this was the blues in its purist form.