Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Feeling the Blues, Quite Enjoyably, at Kingston Mines (plus collegiate classical and jazz shout-outs)

Concert / Blues Review

Carl Weathersby Blues Band
J.W. Williams and the Chi-Town Hustlers
Kingston Mines / Chicago Blues Center
March 10, 2014
(Same pair play every Monday; Weathersby also has a Wednesday residency)

Article also references:

Student Jazz Combo Performance
Northeastern Illinois University, Chicago
March 6, 2014

Northwestern University Symphony Orchestra
featuring piano soloists Xuan He and Xia Jiang
Pick-Staiger Concert Hall, Evanston
March 8, 2014

As I was driving to Kingston Mines on Monday night, it occurred to me that not only was this the first time I was going to the erstwhile establishment which, like me, has existed since 1968, but that aside from multiple visits to Buddy Guy's Legends specifically to see its namesake legend, I haven't gone to any Chicago blues clubs.

Which isn't to say I haven't enjoyed live blues.

At festivals like Skokie's Backlot Bash, I've seen local greats like Lonnie Brooks, Eddy "The Chief"
Clearwater and Lil Ed & the Blues Imperials.

I've seen the legendary B.B. King a couple of times in theaters, and Eric Clapton playing blues-heavy sets at the United Center.

Though I never visited Maxwell Street in its heyday, in recent years I've seen blues ensembles playing nearby on Roosevelt Road. And I've seen multiple blues performers on Taste of Chicago stages, or even the fest's periphery.

I've been wowed by Buddy Guy six times at Legends, most recently in  January, and at a Ravinia show with Robert Cray opening. About 20 years ago, I saw Lonnie Brooks at a suburban club that wasn't specifically a blues venue (Shades) and even caught Lil' Ed (Williams) and his Blues Imperials a couple years ago in the unexpected environs of the Glenview Public Library.

But for no good reason, until Monday night I had never ventured to Kingston Mines at 2548 N. Halsted, nor the nearby B.L.U.E.S., or to Rosa's Lounge, Blue Chicago or any other extant or extinct blues clubs. (I won't count the House of Blues, at which I've never seen an actual blues concert.)

I don't know what took me so long.

Although many supposedly stellar blues clubs--such as the Checkerboard Lounge--once existed on Chicago's south side, the aforementioned venues are located in relatively upscale and/or gentrified areas; certainly Kingston Mines and B.L.U.E.S. are in the heart of Lincoln Park. 

Granted, even on a Monday night, the music doesn't start at Kingston Mines until 9:30pm, and though it goes until 3:30am, even leaving at 11:30 after a single set each by J.W. Williams and Carl Weathersby made for a relatively late weeknight.

But though, like me, Kingston Mines--which also dubs itself the Chicago Blues Center--isn't all that old, walking through its doors felt like passing into part of Chicago's storied history.

Granted, the club has only been at its current location since 1982, but the building and venue space are considerably older, as it once held a jazz club called Redford's. (Read more history here; I found it interesting to note that the original Kingston Mines started as a coffeehouse, mostly for folk musicians, and also served as a theater that held the first production of the musical Grease.)

I acutely enjoy this sense of stepping into a largely unchanged past, and have recently felt similar sensibilities in (re)visiting the Green Mill, Manny's Deli, Laschet's Inn and the Pickwick Theater (in Park Ridge), among other Chicagoland relics. (This is a great website for those who relish Chicago history, from an entertainment & commerce standpoint.)

Kingston Mines has a pair of adjoining rooms with stages, allowing two acts to alternate hourlong sets; there is also a third, typically acoustic performer on given nights.

I imagine on weekends, one need commit to one room or the other if sitting down is a necessity--or just a
desirability, given that food is available from the internal Doc's Rib Joint--but I was easily able to get a prime seat for both Williams' and Weathersby's first sets of the night (though the Main Stage room, where the latter played, did fill up quite a bit). 

Before I get to the music, let me share that the ribs were excellent. I got a half-slab that was really meaty and accompanied by terrific fries, cole slaw and a jalapeno corn muffin.

The cover charge varies by night, but on Monday (and others) is just $12. A pretty good deal for up to 6 hours of great music.

I was not previously familiar with J.W. Williams and his Chi-Town Hustlers--apologies if this isn't exact, but I believe the band was identified as Calvin on guitar, Tomiko on keyboards and Cardell on drums--but found his set quite enjoyable.

Williams is a bassist and singer, and just seems as though he's lived the blues (don't ask me to define this). While most of his initial set seemed comprised of traditional Chicago blues, such as "Hoochie Coochie Man"--written by Willie Dixon and first recorded by Muddy Waters) and "Got My Mojo Working" (see a brief clip here), I also enjoyed his romps through Stevie Wonder's "Superstition" and James Brown's "I Feel Good." His three bandmates were also very good.

Back in 2002 I had seen Carl Weathersby as an opening act for Buddy Guy at Legends, but beyond being impressed enough to have remembered his name, I can't say I knew much of him or his music going into Monday's gig.

Well, I was instantly reminded what a terrific guitarist he is; if not quite at Guy's groundbreaking level, he is impressive enough to truly dazzle.

And while it wouldn't have seemed surprising if the seated Weathersby and his band--again, apologies for inaccuracies, but I believe Ron Moten was on keys, Leon Smith on drums and Skip ?? on bass--stuck largely to 12-bar blues, even within an hourlong set the variance in styles from song to song was really admirable.

Certainly, there were a few traditional numbers, but there was also a couple of nice uptempo tunes--one sounded like it may have been called "Open the Door to Your Heart"--and Weathersby ended his 10:30 set with an extended take on "Blue Moon" (which I'm a bit surprised to learn was written by Rodgers & Hart).

You can learn more about Carl Weathersby via his rather in-depth if somewhat dated website, and below is a snippet of video I shot. But if you love live blues--especially with relatively little cost, effort or hassle--I highly recommend that you get down to Kingston Mines.

Like I finally did.

And I have to assume that several other performers there, including those with residencies and special weekly guest artists, are also quite remarkable.


I don't critique student performances but had written in this piece about the pleasure I derive from attending shows of various types at local colleges for very little money.

Most often I see theater at Northwestern--which is just 15 minutes from my home--but in addition to the Charles Mingus-infused jazz concert I wrote about, this past Saturday I attended a truly sublime performance by the NU Symphony Orchestra, comprised of over 60 students.

For just an $8 ticket, I heard three stellar pieces conducted by Victor Yampolsky. While I won't suggest the students sounded as good as the esteemed Chicago Symphony Orchestra, to my ears not only were they terrific, but the particular program in full was more pleasing than one I recently attended at the CSO.

First up was Prokofiev's Symphony No. 1, Op. 25 "Classical Symphony." Then came the first of two piano concertos--both accompanied by the full orchestra: Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat Minor, Op. 23. The piano soloist on this one was a graduate student from China named Xuan Lee, who was excellent and earned a well-deserved standing ovation.

After an intermission was Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Minor, Op. 30, a notoriously difficult piece that was featured in the movie Shine. But like Lee, NU doctoral student Xia Jiang performed his piece--playing almost non-stop for 40 minutes--without sheet music. He too was truly outstanding and reverently saluted by a crowd that undoubtedly included many more expert classical music fans than I.

Last Thursday, my friend Ken and I attended another local university, Northeastern Illinois, at its main campus in Chicago's North Park neighborhood.

Like Northwestern, NEIU has a full slate of concerts and theatrical events, both by students and visiting artists. Most of these are free or inexpensive.

Always open to expanding my familiarity with jazz, I noted a program featuring student jazz combos, which was free of charge and, per the norm, open to the public.

Within a comfortable auditorium, it was nice to see the diversity of those enrolled in NEIU's jazz program--including some students significantly older than typical college age--and the hour's worth of music was truly enjoyable.

And it was also informative, as an emcee--presumably a professor or dean--introduced each of the pieces played by four different combos, providing technical insights that were appreciated if a bit over my head. There was no printed program, but I know Miles Davis was represented by at least a couple works, including "Dear Old Stockholm."

One musician notably played stand-up bass in one combo and piano in another.

I've seen and heard great jazz at some legendary venues, including Chicago's Jazz Showcase and the Village Vanguard, Birdland and Blue Note in New York, and I found the NEIU student program perfectly satisfying.

And combined with a footlong Polish Sausage + 20 oz. fountain drink combo at Costco for just $1.50--which Ken kindly treated me to--it again proved that enjoyable food and entertainment are indeed available for just a mere pittance.

Even adding in the NU and Kingston Mines outings, I was well-nourished by three days' worth of jazz, classical and blues for just $20. 

So while I fear treading upon the terrain of redundant preaching, what I'm really hoping to do is to enlighten others to the enrichment that can be readily had for very few riches.

Thus, even if I hadn't loved the pictured jar at Kingston Mines, please consider all this simply as a tip that I'm happy to share.

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