Sunday, March 29, 2009

Wiley and the Checkmates, The Hideout, Chicago, March 28, 2009

This was one of those nights where I was so happy that I live in Chicago. It had nothing to do with the weather. The temperature was not much above freezing, but with the high winds and constant rain, it was as miserable as a 10 below zero day.

What made me feel so happy was that there are people like Tim Tuten, John Ciba and James Porter in this town. Tuten is one of the owners of The Hideout. It's a small bar in a factory section of town. Tuten is one of the folks who turned into a premier music club, which has become famous for its annual late summer block party. He's also a hilarious presence introducing bands, or, in this case, DJs and a band.

The DJs in question were the East of Eden Soul Express. James Porter has been involved in the local music scene as a writer and a musician (in Hoodoo Hoedown, for example). And John Ciba worked at record store, then for a record company/distributor, and then he found himself putting out records.

And not just any records. His forays to Alabama connected him with great undiscovered soul sides, leading to his first release on Rabbit Factory, a collection of great stuff from Birmingham. Since then, Porter and Ciba have become popular DJs, getting 20-somethings dancing to deep soul dusties, and getting some vintage R & B singers to come to Chicago.

One of those singers is Howard Wiley. Back in the '60s, he played the chitlin' circuit. And earlier this decade, he got back into music. Wiley and his new Checkmates now play out with some regularity.

Wiley has put together one hell of a band. The basic guitar/bass/drums foundation is augmented by a percussionist and a two-piece horn section (saxophone and trumpet). All were impressive, especially the deep bottomed work of Anthony Wortham on drums and the tight chicken scratch licks of J.D. Mark on guitar (he has been a touring guitarist with LCD Soundsystem). After the Checkmates warmed up with two instrumentals, Wiley came out.

He is a joyful presence on stage, who provides the grit and the grease that adds spice to the smooth razor sharp grooves laid down by the band. The set was mostly covers, with a couple swell originals thrown in. Wiley has personality and showed off surprising power and range at times. Whether it was a slow bluesy burner or something hot, Wiley was up to the task.

Two big highlights in the set were a great R & B recasting of Bobbie Gentry's classic "Ode to Billie Joe" and a terrific workout on James Brown's "Cold Sweat". On the former, Wiley sang in more measured tones, but altered lyrics to fit the funkier vibe. On the latter, Wiley didn't imitate the Godfather of Soul, but found his own way to connect with the song. Even better, he used this song to let each Checkmate to play a little solo and get some love from the crowd.

And Wiley really connected with the crowd. He doesn't just have character, he is a character. Moreover, it was obvious he was having a great time up on stage.

Just over two weeks ago, I saw Raphael Saadiq do a modern version of a classic soul show. Now I got to see an original do his thing. What I've learned is that old or new, soul will always be around.

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