The blues seem custom-fit for 2020, like a closely tailored suit, measured perfectly, but destined to be seen only once, before the pallbearers close the lid on the casket and lower your coffin six feet under.
But rather than a dirge of death and loss, blues music can be a celebration of the good times and the bad times, the sweet with the bitter, the crazy, clichéd runaway train that is life, at one moment a scenic vista sailing smoothly on well-oiled wheels and at the next moment like a sonic fucking rollercoaster threatening to fly off the rails and toss you in the middle of cracked concrete rectangles, neglected landscaping and ramshackle machinery sheds.
If you’ve been thinking that the cure for 2020 would be a boogie-woogie blues piano revival, then you’re not alone, although it’s instructive to note that “Johnny Iguana’s Chicago Spectacular!” released this August on Delmark, was recorded in January 2019. It’s hard to imagine Johnny Iguana and his ensemble getting such a rich and dynamic “live” sound in the 2020 milieu of home recordings and the digital trading of parts.
Although he was born and raised in Philadelphia as Brian Berkowitz, pianist Johnny Iguana became obsessed with Chicago blues at age fifteen, playing all night at Philly blues clubs armed with little more than a fake ID, an ill-fitting sports coat and his fast-moving fingers. He later spent three years touring and recording with Chicago legend Junior Wells.
Iguana has called Chicago home since 1994, playing with Stevie Lizard & His All-Reptile Orchestra in the late nineties (possibly the source of his herpetologically inspired moniker, and not illustrative of his fondness for the Mexican chicken of the trees), played “abusive organ tones” with the now defunct avant-indie rock iconoclasts oh my god, formed his band Them vs. Them with JQ of the Q Brothers, and following that, the synth-fueled Software Giant. He formed “garage cabaret” band The Claudettes in 2010 as an instrumental duo with drummer Michael Caskey (who plays drums and percussion on seven of these twelve tracks), but their last three albums have been as a four-piece, with the addition of Berit Ulseth singing and Zach Verdoorn singing and playing bass.
In addition to Junior Wells, Johnny Iguana has also played with a who’s-who of blues legends including Otis Rush, Buddy Guy, James Cotton, Carey Bell, Eddy Clearwater, Lurrie Bell and Billy Branch; he’s played music all over Europe, North and South America, Australia and New Zealand, Indonesia, Japan and the Middle East.
Iguana has played on Grammy-nominated albums by Wells, “Chicago Blues: A Living History” and the Muddy Waters 100 Band, and he played all the piano on the 2018 “Chicago Plays the Stones” album. Aside from Wells, he includes in his “major musical inspirations” Otis Spann, Jay McShann, Ray Charles, Mose Allison, Bobby Timmons, Mike Watt, Bob Mould, Joe Strummer and Captain Beefheart.
On his solo debut, you can best hear his dexterous piano runs on the instrumentals he composed and which positively rock, and his sense of humor is obvious from titles like “Hammer and Tickle,” “Land Of Precisely Three Dances,” “Big Easy Women” and “Motorhome.”
Yet my favorite tracks feature veteran bluesmen on lead vocals, kicking off with the ominous “44 Blues,” a Roosevelt Sykes composition sung by John Primer. Primer also sings lead and contributes guitar to Willie Dixon’s “Down In The Bottom”—novice blues listeners will recognize lots of Led Zeppelin DNA in the double helix of this one.
Billy Boy Arnold provides vocals and harmonica on Sonny Boy Williamson’s “You’re An Old Lady” and closes the record with “Hot Dog Woman,” originally done by “Big Bill” Broonzy (a founding faculty member of Old Town School of Folk Music). I’m not sure if Arnold chose these or Iguana asked him to perform on them, but between the dismissive “Old Lady” and the worshipful ode to the married “Hot Dog Woman,” whoever came up with this idea should page the ghost of Dr. Freud, stat. Subject matter notwithstanding, both numbers groove along in old-school blues fashion, and are highlights.
This seems like a good juncture to mention that men don’t have a monopoly on the blues, but they do on this record. It would have been great to get a local legend like Mavis Staples or a rising star like Shemekia Copeland (or even Berit Ulseth of The Claudettes) to sing lead on a number originally done by Koko Taylor or Billie Holiday or another female blues legend, but perhaps that omission can be addressed on Iguana’s next record as a bandleader.
A local up-and-comer gets a turn leading Gil Scott-Heron’s “Lady Day And John Coltrane”—“dive bar soul” singer (and nephew of B.B. King) Phillip-Michael Scales could be the next Ben Harper, if not the next John Legend, and his smooth yet soulful lead vocals demonstrate his passion and talent. On a record of real “old school” blues this might be the most twenty-first-century perspective, but it’s still a high point, to the credit of the bare bones trio on this cut—just Iguana on keys, Caskey on percussion and Scales singing and playing rhythm guitar.
Lil’ Ed’s (of The Blues Imperials) vocals and guitar on Otis Spann’s “Burning Fire” are slow, simmering and fiery, with Iguana’s piano undergirding the affair like lapping flames. Conversely, his boogie-woogie take on Elmore James’ “Shake Your Moneymaker” hops and skips and lurches so much the whole record could derail, much like that out-of-control roller coaster, but a heckuva lot more fun.
Another Sonny Boy Williamson composition, the standard “Stop Breaking Down,” gets the lead vocal and harmonica treatment from Chicago blues veteran Matthew Skoller, with Billy Flynn pitching in with an echoing guitar part that knows its place (one of his three appearances), and Kenny Smith dynamically drums (he plays on the five cuts where Caskey doesn’t).
The blues clearly runs in the Skoller family, as Matthew’s brother, Larry Skoller, a three-time Grammy-nominated producer, does a masterful balancing job of what could be a mishmash of chaos, were the components placed in less talented hands. As Skoller writes in the producer’s notes, although there are many traditional blues components, and it “is a blues album from top to bottom… compelling evidence that blues today is vital, and still evolving.” It is a welcome sign that even in 2020, the blues, this language of lament, is still alive and evolving into something celebratory, and provide such a rollicking good time.
Craig Bechtel is a freelance writer and has also been a Senior Staff Writer for Pop’stache. He is also a DJ, volunteer and Assistant Music Director for CHIRP Radio, 107.1 FM, and contributes occasionally to the CHIRP blog. As DJ Craig Reptile, you can hear him play music on the FM dial or at www.chirpradio.org most Sunday nights from 6pm to 9pm. He previously worked in radio at KVOE AM and Fox 105 in Emporia, Kansas, and served as a DJ, music director and general manager for WVKC at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, where he also won the Davenport Prize for Poetry and earned a B.A. in English writing. Craig has been working in various capacities within the hotel and meetings industry for over twenty years, and presently works at a company that uses proprietary systems to develop proven data strategies that increase revenue, room nights and meeting attendance. In his spare time, he also fancies himself an armchair herpetologist, and thus in addition to a wife, son and cat, he has a day gecko and a veiled chameleon in his collection.