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Music Review: Studebaker John’s Maxwell Street Kings – That’s The Way You Do

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Chicago’s Maxwell Street, the famous open-air market where many blues musicians cut their teeth, is long gone. Studebaker John and friends, though, remember the tough, no-nonsense sounds that captivated street-corner crowds. Stripped down to the basics – driving rhythms from guitar and drums, with slashing slide and harmonica amplified to raunchy distortion to cut through the noise – it’s a raw, visceral sound, with more than a hint of danger very close to the surface.

The Maxwell Street Kings include journeyman guitarist Rick Kreher (the last guitarist in the great Muddy Waters’ band, and a mainstay on the current Chicago scene) and drummer Steve Cushing, a shuffle master who’s also the long-running host of the nationally syndicated Blues Before Sunrise show on NPR. These are guys who know their stuff, and together the three, with John on harmonica and slide guitar, deliver a set of fifteen originals, all credited to John, that sound like long-lost classics – period-perfect compositions that re-create a bygone era with exuberant energy and flawless performances.

Studebaker John (real name John Grimaldi), a seasoned veteran himself with numerous recordings under his belt, is an out-and-out monster on both slide and harp. Anchored by Kreher’s rock-steady rhythms, he’s free to weave in and out, with an intuitive feel for exactly what works – tasteful yet forceful accents rather than over-the-top excursions. That’s not to say his solos aren’t full of fire and fury – but all three participants are concerned with the right notes, not how many can be squeezed in. Grimaldi wrote all the material, all the tunes either timeless (classic bad-women-hard-times blues themes) or timeless (“Headin’ Down To Maxwell Street,” a lament for the titular avenue itself).

The tunes and performances, in fact, are all deniably authentic, not as re-creations but as living – and shining – examples of the idiom. If there’s a single problem with the disc it’s pacing – individually every song is strong, but strung together there are a few too many tunes falling into a sort of generic slow-to-mid-tempo groove. A bit more variety in tempo and a few more upbeat numbers would help liven the party.

Still, one can’t deny the forceful delivery and powerful performances on display here, and the playing is ‘way cool old school’ – sparse and spare and downright scary – in the very best way. If you’re a fan of classic Chicago blues, this one’s essential.

 

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