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Music Review: Various Artists – It Ain’t Over – Delmark Celebrates 55 Years Of Blues

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Delmark Records, founded on a shoestring by a young Bob Koester to sell the music he liked from his dorm room, has become an integral part of the history they’ve played such a key role in keeping alive. A regional label that virtually defines what classic and contemporary Chicago blues sound like, Delmark’s current roster features the cream of the Windy City’s working blues musicians.  The label is so important, in fact, that March 7, 2008 was declared Delmark Day by Chicago Mayor Daley.

While it’s true that blues is one of America’s most successful musical exports, it’s equally true that Chicago remains ‘the home of the blues,’ the spiritual centre, if you will. Over the years, Koester has played an essential part in preserving the city’s musical heritage, supporting and recording artists whom history might well have forgotten otherwise. Here we have a gathering of artists, most Delmark veterans, celebrating the man and the label in the most fitting manner possible – with a raucous and rollicking party featuring rough but undeniably powerful music that’s ragged and sweaty and thoroughly glorious.

The event may have been an historical milestone, but rarely is historical preservation as vibrant and bursting with life as this. From the moment Zora Young kicks things off with the tough, funky “Tile The Fat Lady Sings” to Tail Dragger’s gut-wrenching howls (yes, he’s a Wolf acolyte) on “My Woman Is Gone,” this is a no-frills birthday party of unrelenting musical intensity.

Chicago stalwart Jimmy Johnson follows Young with a pair, the classic “Cold Cold Feeling” and Fenton Robinson’s “You Don’t Know What Love Is.” Johnson’s guitar work is revelatory, his stinging but concise leads providing an object lesson in musical economy, before Aaron Moore takes a solo turn at the piano for a rollicking “Wading In Deep Water.” The late Little Arthur Duncan delivers economical harmonica and slyly exuberant vocals on “Pretty Girls Everywhere,” taking the tune at an easy-going lope.

Next it’s the disc’s hidden star. Son of Chicago harmonica legend Carey, guitarist Lurrie Bell steps up to deliver a hard-shuffling “Don’t You Lie To me,” adding his gruff but thoroughly convincing vocals to his characteristically incendiary fretwork. Bell has emerged as one of the most intense and inventive guitarists on the scene, and he remains on stage for the rest of the program, providing stellar support to Shirley Johnson (“As The Years Go Passing By”), a pair by sax great Eddie Shaw (standards “For You My Love” and “Sun Is Shining”) before Tail Dragger’s two tunes that end the party.

Other performers represent a veritable who’s who among blues aficionados, including the likes of guitarists Dave Spector and Nick Moss, legendary bassist Bob Stroger, drummer Kenny Smith, with Roosevelt Purifoy on keys and Billy Branch adding harmonica on the disc’s closer. Fittingly, it’s all loose and relaxed – when it comes to the blues, heart and soul matter far more than musical meticulousness, and the mood here is all about honoring and celebrating a genre – and a record label – based on passion rather than precision.

A fine tribute to Mr. Koester and his labour of love, this is absolutely wonderful stuff, and quite likely the closest one can get to being in a Chicago blues bar when the beer’s cold and the music is hotter than hot!

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