Drawing from the Source
Legends and its rare dedication to the acoustic blues

Chicago’s electric blues has been such a potent musical influence over the last 50 years that it’s easy to forget that the famous amped-up sound itself draws on some of the most powerful, varied, and sophisticated singing and playing to come of out a simple formula: One voice. One guitar.

Many local artists will tell you that Legends is a standout club for its consistent, long-standing commitment to acoustic music.  On Friday and Saturday nights before the electric acts take the stage, Legends features extended sets from some world-class acoustic soloists who play everything from the complex finger-picking Piedmont style to the stinging, percussive Delta sound.  Legends manager Brian Fadden views this is an important way of exposing casual listeners to good blues.  “A lot of people who come here have to get up early for work; maybe they come for dinner but have to leave before  the main acts start.  By having acoustic soloists early in the evening, we can give these people some serious blues that they might not hear otherwise.”

Diamond Jim Greene: The world of Chicago’s South Side street musicians has disappeared, but it was along Ells Avenue that Diamond Jim Greene first felt the thrill of the blues.  As a boy walking to and from school every day he’d grown accustomed to seeing and hearing musicians playing on porches, on sidewalks, in backyards.  But the man who captivated him one day was Blind Arvella Gray. “I saw a big crowd around this man, and everyone was yelling for him to play one song or another over again, they were moving to what he played-and they’d throw money at him or put it in the cup he hat attached o his lapel.  It was scattering all over the ground- I liked that.  And I couldn’t believe the music!  My hair stood on end hearing him.”  Since then Diamond Jim Greene has been delivering that same kind of intensity  to crowds at the major blues festivals from Chicago to Lucerne.  And, with his recent original song “The Blind Man,” he has at last paid homage to the man who inspired him during that childhood encounter.

Greene has a passionate following in Europe, where he travels on average twice a year to perform, and where his first CD “Just a Dream” was recorded.  Ironically, the European audiences seem to him much better schooled in the blues than are many Americans.  “You would not believe the collections of blues CDs that some of these people have,” he marvels.  “Maybe because they’re removed from our racial history here they’re able to see the Blues for what it is-a complex art form.  And they really listen when you play; man, they’re right up at the stage and they know all the songs, so you really have to perform.”  Adept at both Piedmont and Delta blues a more emotionally intense experience.  He attributes this to the different backgrounds of the original performers.  “The slaves and sharecroppers go worked harder in the Delta and the Eastern blacks were in a different world.  It’s not just that the music sounds different; the subject matter is, different, too.”

His recent CDs Coach House Blues and Snapshots contain his interpretations of songs by Robert Johnson, Blind Willie McTell, and a number of originals that build on their tradition.  Greene has cut another CD that features among other Legends friends, Chris Walz (who is also profiled here) on piano.