When somebody talks about an independent record company the tendency is to think of a bunch of wild eyed young guys producing "indie rock" and other fringe type music. Their rosters seem to be bands that are at a certain point in their career stylistically, or who are looking for their initial exposure. Of course, there are also independent labels which specialize in specific types of music, experimental electronic, and other forms of contemporary composition the mainstream companies don't consider cost efficient.
But there was a time when all of them were independent record companies, because there weren't the multi national corporations of today that have a stranglehold on the music industry. Back in 1953 when Robert Koester founded Delmark Records in Chicago, his was just one of many labels that was producing blues and jazz records in that musical hotbed. The ensuing fifty-five years has seen most of his former competitors fall by the wayside as the industry and tastes in popular music changed.
Delmark rode out the hard times of the sixties and seventies when bues and jazz sales plummeted as first rock and toll, then disco and other watered down versions of the music, dominated sales. Operating in Chicago, for Chicago musicians and the Chicago audience, probably helped them make it when others went under. There aren't many towns where you can go to the bar and see your favourite local act playing, and buy their locally made album the next day at a locally owned and operated store.
Their slogan maybe "Where The Music Lives", but it could be easily amended to read "Where The Music Of Chicago Lives" and you wouldn't be far off the mark. From their new series of re-mastered piano rolls featuring Chicago talent of the 1920's to DVDs and CDs of live shows by local jazz and blues artists recorded in clubs and venues around the city today, Delmark continues to feature the best of the "City with big shoulders" (Carl Sandburg).
The latest example is the irrepressible Little Arthur Duncan and his band caught live on CD and DVD in Little Arthur Duncan: Live At Rosa's Blues Lounge. Recorded in the intimate surroundings of Rosa's Blues Lounge on August 18th this past summer, the music not only lives, it comes alive in a way a show recorded at a bigger venue could never emulate. With five or six camera's running at all times and immaculate sound quality, the only thing missing is the smell of the beer the guy at the table next to you is drinking.
Little Arthur Duncan has probably passed under a lot of people's radar because he wasn't performing for a good number of years, except in his own club. He had started his career in of all places Key West, but that's where he hooked up with Earl Hooker so he wasn't the only guy who went South first before heading North. They showed up in Chicago in 1954 and Little Arthur hooked up with Little Walter who became his first mentor and teacher.
Even though he held on to his day job, it's a lot harder for a vocalist/harmonica player to make a living than a guitar player, he soon became a regular in the clubs. When the scene started drying up in the late sixties, his playing time was reduced, although he never stopped, sitting in periodically with Buddy Guy, Earl Hooker, and others. It was in the early 1980's that he began running his own club where he'd book in all Blues acts. He could usually be counted on to climb on stage with whoever was playing that night, but he concentrated on keeping the scene going rather than being part of it.
When he was forced to close Backscratcher's Lounge he began playing full time again, and he's quickly garnered a reputation as being one of the acts to check out in Chicago. Watching him play, sing, and just generally perform on the DVD Live At Rosa's Lounge you understand why right from the first note of his harmonica. This guy is an emotional dynamo; he throws himself heart and soul into every single song he plays and you know he's not holding anything back.
I've always loved the old blues musicians with their chairs on stage. After one or two songs they always apologize for having to sit down because "they're feelin' their age", but half way through any number they've begun seated, their up bouncing around again. Little Arthur is no exception; the music seems to act like an electric current in him. Coursing through his veins and pulling him to his feet time after time, putting out way more energy on stage than musicians half his age.
The music is the classic electric Chicago blues sound, and listening to Little Arthur playing you realize how few people are still playing that music. It's a high energy, hard driving, and dynamic sound that isn't like anything else you'll ever hear. The drum and the bass lay down something solid that makes your spine twitch and your shoulders itch, the two guitars build the melody on top of that and the vocalist/harp player rides it all like a ship running before a steady wind over the rolling ocean.
Little Arthur and his band make it look easy. Twist Turner on drums and Michael Azzi on bass just keep on rolling like they'll never stop – talk about a perfect example of sustainable energy. Then there is the guitar work of Rick Kreher, formally of the Muddy Waters band, and Illinois Slim. Standing calmly on either side of Little Arthur, they carry on the most amazing guitar conversation I've heard in ages. Both of them seem to have that rare ability to be playing lead and rhythm guitar at the same time and make their presence felt without flamboyant posturing or striking poses.
The focal point is, of course, Little Arthur; pigeon chested (probably from blowing harp and singing for so many years), he curls his body in around his harmonica and microphone and blows classic harp sounds redolent of all the emotional turmoil you've ever associated with the blues. When he sings, he cocks his head back and fixes his bright, mischievous, shining eyes, on the audience. Seemingly throwing all caution to the winds, he sings with apparent abandon, but he's completely synchronized with the band and sounds like a natural extension of the music.
With Little Arthur Duncan: Live At Rosa's Blues Lounge Delmark records continues to cement their reputation for being able to provide superlative, intimate, live recordings whether on DVD or CD. While the DVD contains a couple of extra tracks, and a commentary by Little Arthur, the CD allows you to listen to the same sound when you don't have a DVD player handy. While the video quality isn't the greatest – it's all been done with hand held equipment you and I could pick up in a store – the overall impact of their recordings is so powerful that it doesn't matter.
Most labels these days give you some overproduced staged "Music Video" of their acts. Delmark goes down the street and catches them live on stage playing in clubs where the walls echo with the sounds of the thousands of blues musicians. You can't recreate atmosphere like that no matter how expensive your equipment. Using five or sixhand held camera's, all shooting at once, and some editing magic, it makes you feel like you're part of the crowd in the bar on that night.
Little Arthur Duncan and his band play are keeping the sound of Chicago blues alive, and Delmark Records brings it live to your house. It really doesn't get much better than that.