By Jim Hynes – Glide Magazine
The adventurous, chameleon-like, affable Chicago pianist Johnny Iguana is finally making his blues debut as a leader. He’s been a sideman on countless Delmark albums and yes, he’s the same Johnny Iguana who leads the blues/jazz/rock band The Claudettes, who we reviewed on these pages in March. If you were unaware of his blues resume then, it’s time to shed light on what might be as strong a litany of names as any player has, and he’s adding to that esteemed list with the guests he’s invited to Delmark’s Johnny Iguana’s Chicago Spectacular!, a grand and upright celebration of Chicago blues piano. He began as a sideman for Junior Wells and has since recorded with Otis Rush, Buddy Guy, Taildragger, James Cotton, Carey Bell, Eddy Clearwater, Lurrie Bell, Billy Branch, and more, some of whom appear on this effort, notably John Primer, Lil’ Ed, and Billy Boy Arnold. Other luminaries appearing include Bob Margolin, Matthew Skoller, Billy Flynn, Kenny “Beedy Eyes” Smith, Bill Dickens, Philip-Michael Scales, and Michael Caskey.
Iguana (christened Brian Berkowitz) grew up in Philadelphia but became obsessed with Chicago blues and especially Junior Wells and Otis Spann at the age of 15. As stated, he passed an audition and was a key member of Wells’ band for three years, eventually moving to and calling Chicago home. Johnny, though, as hinted in the opening line, is not exactly your traditional blues pianist. He respects and honors the tradition but puts his own stamp on the music as evidenced by his four originals here and the inclusion of Gil Scott-Heron’s “Lady Day and John Coltrane.” He’s fluent in the blues language but takes in influences of jazz and rock as well. But, one thing that is indisputably clear is that he has plenty of friends and admirers.
He covers tunes from two of the most acclaimed blues pianists – Roosevelt Sykes and Otis Spann, as well two from Sonny Boy Williamson, and one each from Elmore James, Willie Dixon, and Big Bill Broonzy along with his four originals. He begins with Sykes barrelhouse tune “44 Blues” with John Primer on the vocal and Bob Margolin on guitar before rumbling into his own skittering, creatively chordal “Hammer and Tickle.” Primer joins again on guitar for Dixon’s “Down In The Bottom” while harmonica great Billy Boy Arnold sings and blows, joined by guitarist Billy Flynn on Williamson’s “You’re An Old Lady,” a standout track. Iguana then delivers another of his wild boogie-woogie heaven originals with the crashing, undulating “Land of Precisely Three Dances,” like most herein, of the two- or three-minute variety.
B.B. King’s nephew, newcomer Phillip Michael-Scales, takes the lead vocal on the Gil Scott-Heron tune which is followed by another wild original, “Big Easy Woman.” Lil’ Ed Williams assumes the lead on both vocals and stinging guitar for Otis Spann’s slow blues, “Burning Fire” and for the Elmore James rave-up “Shake Your Money Maker,” one that he’s likely played countless times. While Lil’ Ed kills the slide guitar, Iguana is a veritable Jerry Lee Lewis and more on the piano here on his following original “Motorhome.” (which is barreling down the highway at highly dangerous speed).
Naturally, Iguana closes the album in the same frenetically energetic style, first taking Williamson’s “Stop Breaking Down,” perhaps made most famous by the Rolling Stones on Exile on Main Street. Matt Skoller takes the incendiary harp solo and takes no prisoners on his vocal as well with Billy Flynn returning on guitar. Broonzy’s “Hot Dog Mama” closes with Billy Boy Arnold singing and Flynn in the guitar chair.
Kudos to Larry Skoller, who wrote the liners, with statements like these – “This is no imitation. This is no pure homage. Half a century of blues piano greats are honored here, but Johnny Iguana has made an album that lets his own voice ring out. Accompanied by many of Chicago’s greatest living blues artists, Johnny has created a blues piano album like no other. It’s traditional, it’s contemporary, it’s audacious…” Throughout, this has all the hallmarks of a down-home, sweaty session in one of those tiny Chicago blues clubs. That studio was surely alive!