I was never very fond of the NPR Saturday blues show in Buffalo. The shuffling three-chorders about what kind of blues this week’s featured singer had just about summed up the blues music education I received from an otherwise fine station. The songs all sounded the same, played by the same drawling singers with the same gravelly voices. I literally learned more about blues music from my father’s copies of the Blues Brothers movies, which were a collective total of maybe five hours long. More to the point, I was busily occupying myself with classic rock and shock rap and so my musical world was pretty closed off. I wanted to hear flamethrowing guitar work and earth-bruising beats.
Buffalo is not exactly a blues haven. “Stairway to Heaven” and “Free Bird” are the local anthems, ten minutes whose chord progressions can be hummed as readily as either of the national anthems heard around here. I moved to Chicago with a polarized view of the blues so two-dimensional, it would have been perpetuated by a Warner Brothers cartoon. My willingness to expand my blues education was very limited.
When you look at cities, you don’t really think of them as having a particular sound. But Chicago, I noticed, had a distinctively different soundtrack guiding it than Buffalo. Buffalonians went about their business with a lot of shined-up classic rock taking them through the day, and so this was the music I loved growing up. Even in those days, however, I was noticing consistent little themes in the music I liked and the music I didn’t like. The music which sounded good to me had a more stripped, raw sound than the stuff I didn’t like, which is why I preferred The Rolling Stones and The Who to The Beatles (who I also really like, just not as much as the other two), why Guns ‘n’ Roses is still one of my favorite bands, and why I have such a blase attitude toward the Allman Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd, two bands whose reverential status in Buffalo always baffled me. Granted, there were some shined-up bands whose work I liked, but they were mainly love-them-or-burn-them prog rockers like Genesis and Rush. I like the overproduced Van Halen a lot, but their exception is Thor on guitar.
Chicago’s sound was wall-to-wall blues – blues varieties and sounds I didn’t imagine could be classified as blues. As I began stepping out trying to meet people, I noticed many of the places I frequented played blues music regularly. In my most politically active period, I worked a fundraising show on the Milwaukee strip which featured a few big names in the genre, including Dave Specter. It piqued my curiosity enough for me to go out to the Chicago Blues Festival eventually, in a year when BB King was playing. After that, I set out to learn as much about the blues as I possibly could.
I couldn’t believe a lot of what I learned; it turned out that, despite my pleas of ignorance, I had actually been married to blues music for quite some time. The rock music I had grown up listening to had been something of a mistress. Most of the artists I knew and really liked – Aerosmith, Led Zeppelin, and The Rolling Stones chief among them – had a clearly traceable ground influence in blues music. Other artists I knew and loved – Stevie Ray Vaughn, Eric Clapton – were so rooted in the genre, they could easily be considered straight-up blues artists themselves.