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Delmark 70th Bash Convenes the Blues
By Michael Jackson I Dec. 12, 2023
Chicago-based Delmark Records, founded by Bob Koester in St. Louis in 1953, is the oldest continually operating independent jazz and blues label around. Taken over by Julia Miller and Elbio Barilari after Koester’s retirement in May 2018, the label celebrated its 70th anniversary with a variety of events in 2023.
Known as a hub for traditional and progressive jazz, Delmark is equally famous for its deep blues catalog and long-term loyalty to the Windy City’s independent music scene. Guitarist Dave Specter has been a Delmark artist for more than 30 years, recording his debut Bluebird Blues in 1991.
The most recent of his 14 albums, Six String Soul, celebrates his 30th anniversary on the label with a multi-flavored, highly recommended 28-track retrospective featuring such luminaries as Jimmy Johnson, Billy Branch, Ronnie Earl, Otis Clay, Jack McDuff, Steve Freund, Jesse Fortune, Sharon Lewis and Brother John Kattke.
Specter is also a partner at SPACE (an acronym for the rarely used full name, Society for the Preservation of Arts and Culture in Evanston), which has been the choice spot in the Chicago area to catch cannily curated blues/jazz/roots/pop/folk/funk for the past 15 years. Where other venues have floundered with identity crises, SPACE maintains a dependable brand despite diverse bookings.
Specter suggested hosting a Delmark celebration at the club, so Barilari, Delmark’s vice president and artistic director, assembled the band — one that initially convened for Chicago Blues Festival last June.
“Dave is as humble as he is musically devoted … prefers to let the music speak for itself,” said Barilari in the liner notes to Six String Soul. Such was borne out by Specter’s lack of grandstanding but tight attention to detail during an explosive Sept. 20 set at SPACE, which included slap-bass virtuoso Larry Williams and keyboardist Roosevelt Purifoy.
“Roosevelt is one of the most versatile organ/piano/synthesizer players around,” said Barilari. “And we used Larry in our band [Volcano Radar, a band he co-leads with Miller] because he’s such a different player to [the late] Harrison Bankhead, who was irreplaceable. It took things in a new direction with electric bass, Larry adapted to free-jazz/open music without a second’s hesitation.”
Within the blues, both Purifoy and Williams bring it, balancing consummate musicianship with ebullient showmanship. The latter pounced forward at SPACE for his staple star turn in Mike Wheeler’s Band on Little Milton’s burner “That’s What Love Will Make You Do.”
High-octane Wheeler and axe comrade Specter showed seamless rapport, each twanging strings in micro pockets in the rhythm, trading respective brands of stinging call-and-response. They shared facets of Otis Rush’s indelible, spine-bending hooks on “All Your Love (I Miss Loving),” conjuring Rush’s exciting 1975 live recording of the same name from Wise Fools Pub (Delmark, 2005). The bassist on that date 48 years ago was also in the house, the unstoppable Bob Stroger, who brought the house down with a rocking version of Eugene Church’s ’50s hit “Pretty Girls Everywhere,” which can be found on That’s My Name (Delmark, 2022).
At 92, Stroger, sporting double-breasted butterscotch suit and feathered fedora, crouched at the stage lip, then launched into the capacity crowd, dancing with assorted ladies, illuminated by cellphones held aloft.
Another Chicago blues elder, Billy Boy Arnold, sat at the back of the room, ready to sign his autobiography (which he penned with author Kim Field), The Blues Dream (University of Chicago Press).
“The term ‘legend’ gets bandied around, but he’s it,” announced Specter, reminding the room that Arnold was both a blues and rock hall-of-famer with his songs being covered by the likes of British rockers David Bowie, Eric Clapton and The Animals. Blues historian Dick Shurman, who was in attendance, is producing a Delmark album of converted acetates bestowed on him by Arnold decades ago.
At 88 and a sufferer of vertigo, it seemed unlikely the veteran harmonica ace would join the fray. But such was the energy in the room, Arnold gingerly stepped toward the stage. As soon as he clutched his tin sandwich to the mic, he tore into “I Wish You Would” like it was 1955 again, hanging with Bo Diddley (the hambone groove of his precocious hit was hatched alongside Diddley, and originally titled “Diddy Diddy Dum Dum”).
Despite the decibels of the grinding all-star band, the sound at SPACE, upgraded during the pandemic, was superbly balanced, not deafeningly oppressive as it can be at other blues emporiums.
After singing a recent cut of his own, “Blues From The Inside Out” (from the 2019 Delmark album of the same name), Specter telescoped back to his first record (still available on cassette) with a slide rendition of “Bluebird Blues,” inviting up formative cohort Tad Robinson. Robinson delivered with his soulful voice reminiscent of Robert Cray, and blowing killer harp. His auspicious Delmark debut One To Infinity (1994) has weathered well and still sounds sleek.
At SPACE, Robinson revived “What Love Did To Me,” recorded with Specter at Buddy Guy’s Legends in 2007 (Live In Chicago, Delmark).
Given the quantity of quality acts Specter has associated with over the years, the depth of the Delmark vaults and the longevity of veteran artists who live for the music, the show could have rolled until dawn.
The gospel-infused pipes of vocalist and drummer Sheryl Youngblood parlayed a brace of Junior Wells perennials: “Early In The Morning” and “Hoodoo Man Blues,” cuts from Delmark’s top seller from 1965, plus Jimmy Johnson’s “Everyday Of Your Life” (eponymous track from his last release in 2020).
“Playing with a new combination of musicians to celebrate the label’s legacy was really inspiring,” reflected Specter, who fielded all comers, all night. “Having Billy Boy join us for the encore topped off a great evening of blues.”
“The vibe was great, it couldn’t have gone better,” enthused Julia Miller. “We’ve been building the Delmark All-Stars roster and it’s paying off.”
Meantime, the octogenarian Arnold made a killing selling his memoir.
“As long as you don’t think old, you’re good,” he advised.
The nonagenarian Stroger was one of the last to leave. Asked about his favorite of many Delmark recordings he’s performed on, Stroger recalled 1975’s Cold Day In Hell with Otis Rush. A warm night in blues heaven was in the books, and Stroger was satisfied.
“Beautiful people, I love this space, it’s a listening room,” he beamed. “I was sent to do this, and I’m still having fun. God has been good to me. We did our job when people go home with happy faces.” DB