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Rockin’ Johnny Band – Grim Reaper

Delmark Records

15 tracks; 62.24 minutes

In the 1990s Rockin’ Johnny Burgin was one of the up and coming young guitarists on the Chicago scene. He released two well received CDs on Delmark but had to review his priorities as his family grew. After a decade away from music he released an independent CD entitled “Now’s The Time” in 2010 and now returns to Delmark with this CD. The band is classic Chicago with Johnny handling all the vocals. Johnny shares guitar duties with long-time collaborator Rick Kreher, newcomer to the band Davin ‘Big D’ Erickson plays harp, John Sefner is on bass and Steve Bass on drums (shouldn’t that be the other way round?): horns are added to two tracks by Kenny Anderson (trumpet), Dudley Owens (tenor) and Jerry DiMuzio (baritone). The material is a good blend of the new and familiar: tunes by Otis Rush, Muddy Waters, Little Walter and Fenton Robinson are included yet it is some of the originals (from within and outside the band) that grabbed my attention.

For starters there are two excellent up tempo songs in Billy Flynn’s “Don’t Mess With Me Baby”, fluid guitars throughout, and James Porter’s “One And One Ain’t Two” in which the harp meshes superbly with a driving soul rhythm. From within the band “Big D” provides “Brand New Boots”, a feature for his harp. Johnny wrote four songs including the excellent title track “Grim Reaper” which opens the album. Johnny’s light voice is expressive and conveys the harrowing lyric about death well, but it is the guitar playing that really grabs your attention – fluent, precise and varied, even including a reversed solo of a kind not heard since the psychedelic boom of the 60’s! “Shoe Leather And Tire Rubber” is an account of life on the road, a catchy shuffle with the harp accompanying the vocals in which I note the reappearance of karaoke as a threat to the blues musician – this is becoming something of a regular complaint in contemporary blues! In a similar vein lyrically is “It’s Expensive To Be Broke”, one of the tracks with horns, in which Johnny bemoans the fate of those who are unfortunate enough to be poor: “Being broke takes up lots of time, you always seem to be waiting in line”. “Window To Your Soul” is a slow burner with a touch of Magic Sam in the playing.

The covers are well chosen, offering a range of the familiar to some less well known songs. Otis Rush’s “My Baby’s A Good ‘Un” is taken at a slower pace than normal and Johnny’s guitar is beautifully expressive throughout. Similarly “Somebody Loan Me A Dime” adopts a slow yet funky style of guitar though “Rollin’ And Tumblin’” follows a more familiar pattern. Less familiar to me was “My Sweet Baby”, a song written by Robert Plunkett who once played with Elmore James and was an early mentor to Rockin’ Johnny. You can certainly detect some Elmore influences here and the addition of the horns on the track gives this one a great rocking groove.

Overall this is a superb album, the key feature being the precise playing of Rockin’ Johnny which is terrific throughout. I can recommend this one without reservation - already a contender for Chicago album of the year!

Reviewer John Mitchell is a blues enthusiast based in the UK. He also travels to the States most years
to see live blues music and enjoyed the Tampa Bay Blues Festival in April.

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