The genesis of his career is like countless others; stop me if you've heard this one before. Burns began playing guitar in church, and moved from Mississippi to Chicago. Throughout the '50s and '60s, he knocked around the Chicago scene, finding limited success. He recorded sporadically for small, independent labels and touring regionally.
With his music career stagnating and a family to support, Burns' story deviates from the well-worn path of so many of the legends who came before and after when he chose family over music. He realized he was going to have a difficult time supporting a family solely on what he was making from music, so for most of the '70s and '80s, music was a hobby. He'd play the occasional gig or festival but was mostly out of commission for most of those years. With his kids all grown, he resumed his career in the mid-'90s, signing with Delmark.
Live at B.L.U.E.S. was released this year and features a number of the songs Burns has cut on his previous Delmark LPs. Eight of the 12 songs from this August 2006 show at Chicago's B.L.U.E.S. club are Burns originals. These originals work best — high praise for Burns' compositional skills and mastery of his own songs because the four covers are songs by Little Walter, Elmore James, B.B. King.
There are no tortured wails, agonized moans, or tales of hellhounds on Burns' trail on this summer night in one of Chicago's famous blues clubs. Burns dabbled in soul and doowop music early in his career and those elements can still be heard in his music. His vocal style is smooth and relaxed. A lifetime spent dreaming of nights like this might put some artists in a frenzy. Burns sounds at ease and comfortable. His vocal style and his lead guitar work are relaxed and economical.
You could almost characterize his blues as abstract blues. The music sounds like the blues and uses many of its conventions but doesn't wear its bluesiness on its sleeves. These songs don't rely solely on the same worn out bass runs and chord progressions. His music sounds like the blues because it couldn't be anything else – it's blues by process of elimination. You wouldn't mistake these songs for R&B or jazz and there is no rock in them to pigeonhole this as some sort of blues-rock fusion. He's carved out his own territory, chosen his influences, and found a comfortable way to channel them.
As a lead guitarist, Burns is a minimalist. He doesn't attempt to dazzle you with his virtuosity. It's refreshing to hear someone play the blues without sounding as if he's in competition with every other blues player before or since. He's playing the blues – his blues – and if you can only understand the blues through exaggerated guitar runs then you aren't going to dig what he's doing anyway.
His backing band of second guitarist Tony Palmer, drummer James Carter, and bassist Greg McDaniel follows him with skill and precision, but without bombast or excess. Many of the songs stretch out to six and seven minutes, but the guitar jams and interplay are understated. The songs extend but they aren't treated as excuses for mindless noodling. When Burns gives Palmer a lead nod, Palmer's lead work takes on the tone and fire of a young Dickey Betts. It's a nice counterpoint to Burns' playing.
It's hard not to root for a guy who put his dreams on hold to try and support his family. It's even harder not to root for him when the music is as consistently enjoyable as Live at B.L.U.E.S. is. Good things come to those who wait.
Note: Live at B.L.U.E.S. is available on both CD and DVD.