The Willie ‘Big Eyes’ Smith Blues Band played Toronto’s Silver Dollar Room, Saturday, March 3, 2007, and filled this excellent blues venue with some of the finest Chicago blues around.
Willie ‘Big Eyes’ Smith, is a much-revered and appreciated bluesman, who was the one and only Muddy Waters’ drummer for over 20 years, (replacing renowned Waters Band drummer Francis Clay in 1961), until Muddy’s untimely passing in 1983. Willie’s W.C Handy and Grammy Award-winning talent as a drummer, is world-renowned. His sense of timing and good taste in what he plays has earned him an avid following from blues lovers worldwide. His vocals are equally impressive and easily evoke the atmosphere of Chicago’s south side juke joints with ease and blues enjoyment of the best kind.
Willie’s blues harp playing sometimes eclipses his other fine talents as a blues artist. He was wailin’ away on harp and vocals on some of his own compositions, like "Hard Workin’ Man" and "Eye To Eye"; as well as on others like Jimmy Reed’s "Don’t Say That No More", and Sonny Boy Williams ll’s "Don’t Start Me Talkin’". Hard edged and hard driving at times, Willie’s singing is an extremely enjoyable blues experience; that once savored is always in demand by blues fans everywhere.
Bob Stroger is Willie’s in the groove and always-cool electric bass man/sidekick. http://members.core.com/~bstroger/ Bob’s bass lines are superb in whichever songs he plays bass on, or sings lead vocals on. He is always so appealing to listen to, that sometimes it’s easy to forget that other impeccable blues artists are also taking part in this fine blues night's entertainment. Some of the more memorable songs Stroger sang this night included his classic intro, "Bob Is Back In Town" (from Stroger's CD of the same name), as well as the classic "Key to the Highway." Bob also performed some other emotionally charged tunes like "Keep Your Hands Off Her" and Fred McDowell’s "I Gotta Move", that easily won over the audience hands down.
However, just when our blues sensibilities were mesmerized and hypnotized by Stroger’s impeccable singing and melodic bass lines, Willie’s awesome lead and slide guitarist Little Frank came up with some mouthwatering blues leads and slide, that can take the listener to ‘blues cloud nine’.
Coupled with this, was some mighty fine wailin’ on the ‘Mississippi Saxophone’, courtesy of Willie’s soulfully ecstatic harmonica playing, emanating from another part of the Silver Dollar’s stage. This was added to by the drumming talents of Ed Kovek, capturing the audience's attention with a primeval need for percussive excellence, that Kovek never let up on all through this live and legendary blues experience.
Part way through this evening’s highly excellent night of Chicago blues heaven, Willie took a back seat to his front man vocals and harp playing, to sit behind the drum kit. Willie’s quintessential talent on the skins this night, shows us all why the greatest of blues guitarists and vocalists Muddy Waters, chose Mr. ‘Big Eyes’ to be part of his incredible blues band for decades. Willie played with Muddy to audiences that spanned the globe, in performances that are now legendary. These blues concerts are also somewhat historic in pop culture and the history of blues music in the world.
Willie’s drumming was electrifying to say the least. His energy and good taste in bluesy melodic percussive timing, is almost like a drumming ‘front man’ doing ‘drumming lead vocals’. However, whenever Stroger took center stage, his always inviting and captivating lead vocals on many endearing blues numbers, easily kept the Silver Dollar’s audience in the palm of his hand.
In fact, there was so much superb talent on stage this night (and every time this writer has seen the Willie ‘Big Eyes’ band in various configurations in concert), that it’s easily one of those very special evenings where one can take in what Kovek is doing on drums .. then drift on to Willie’s wild blues harp licks or lead vocals .. get wowed by Stroger’s incredible vocal excellence in the blues, or get a heavy duty blues ‘fix’ from Little Frank’s slide blues and mouthwatering leads, the way a Chicago blues man can do it best! Willie’s son Kenny ‘Beady Eyes’ Smith is also sometimes part of this band, playing drums .. but this night had another blues engagement elsewhere on the blues horizon.
It wasn’t all legendary Chicago blues men onstage this night however. Throughout this entire evening’s entertainment, one of Canada’s most loved and appreciated blues talents, the great Al Lerman was part of Willie’s band. Lerman was consistently out front on awesome blues saxophone and some incredibly energetic and right from the soul blues harp playing himself, that was true blues bliss to behold!
Lerman has demonstrated this fine blues excellence on Juno-winning blues CD’s with his own impressive blues band Fathead: http://www.fathead.biz/ This writer has also enjoyed seeing Lerman play live at several blues venues over the years. Lerman has even had Prince (the one and only ‘Purple Rain-man’ himself), sit in on electric guitar with him in Fathead. On that memorable occasion at the sadly no longer Blues On Bellair in Toronto’s trendy Yorkville area, Prince played some unbelievably intricate jazz and blues guitar leads and rhythms, that were not only entertaining to the awestruck audience -- but also somewhat of an historical musical occasion as well.
However, it is Lerman’s always enjoyable blues playing as a gifted blues artist, that is pre-eminent in this writer’s memory over the years -- seeing him perform at venues ranging from the best blues clubs, to festivals like Toronto’s Beaches Jazz Festival each year -- with blues guitarists like JW Jones and others.
This night with the Willie ‘Big Eyes’ band might appear complete in every respect with outstanding bluesy artistry on guitar, bass, drums and vocals .. but this wonder and amazement of the best bluesy kind was really not complete until it went over the top ‘Toronto-style’, with the surprise addition of multi award-winning Gary Kendall (Downchild Blues Band) sitting in on electric bass for almost half of this night’s mesmerizing second set.
Kendall was playing Stroger’s iconically-desirable 1959 Fender Jazz bass, which Bob has been playing on tour since he bought it '2nd-hand' in 1965 to replace his 1960 Fender 'P’ which ‘disappeared’ without his permission, shall we say! (After the show, Stroger mentioned to this writer that he also has another 1960 Fender and a 1963 ‘P’ in his collection, which he enjoys playing from time to time -- but his ’59 is his touring bass of choice).
Kendall was obviously in his bluesy glory on stage this night, and initially expressed his appreciation for being allowed to play Stroger’s bass in concert with Willie ‘Big Eyes’ and the other legendary bluesmen. This bluesy anecdote brings to mind Kendall’s two basses, ‘Dusty’ and ‘Pearl’, which also happens to be the name of his long-awaited solo CD Dusty and Pearl, from his own Gary Kendall Band: http://www.garykendall.com/
Kendall's bass playing was incredibly enjoyable, and fit in right from the start, as 'legendary' itself. But for a few minutes he did appear like the ‘new kid on the blues block’, but only in happy facial expressions, (as any artist playing with blues 'legends' like Willie 'Big Eyes' and Bob Stroger might react). For those who aren't familiar with Kendall, he is the longtime bassman for the Downchild Blues Band; whose founders Donnie ‘Mr. Downchild’ Walsh and his late brother Hock Walsh, are the inspiration for actor/bluesman Dan Aykroyd’s 'Blues Brothers'.
Kendall’s bass lines this night were really something to behold, and a rare and very special live concert experience for this writer (who also dabbles in bass playing) to see and hear. While Kendall was going through the gamut of blues standards like "Hootchie Cootchie Man" and "I’ve Got My Mojo Workin’" with the Willie ‘Big Eyes’ band as well as some of Willie’s and Bob’s own great repertoire of originals -- the audience was enthralled and were dancing in their seats as well as on the packed dance floor!
Stroger took center stage during some of these numbers, singing lead vocals and sometimes went onto the dance floor to dance with some of his female fans. Willie sang lead vocals and played harp during much of Kendall’s time on stage, and also went on the drum kit as well, for a few tunes.
Lerman wailed away on tenor sax for much of these and other tunes this night, and played some highly energetic blues harp as well, to accompany his blues compadres on stage making this evening’s entertainment, on par with the best this writer has ever experienced live. The Silver Dollar audience seemed equally impressed with the Willie ‘Big Eyes’ Smith Blues Band, and with Kendall’s surprise and highly enjoyable time onstage too!
When blues gets this good, it is like my friend and fellow music journalist Gary Tate so often surmises, "As good as it gets!" And that ain’t no lie!