I go to Chicago for a few days in early March, entirely for shits and giggles. I know what I’m going to do: the Art Institute, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House, 360 Chicago, a food walking tour, a play, a clutch of acclaimed restaurants, the International Museum of Surgical Science — you get it.
And I know what I’m not going to do: the blues.
Famous blues joints pepper Chicago, the most popular being the craptastic cathedral that is the House of Blues, a theme park boasting Mardi Gras “all month” (Mardi Gras, the seamiest excuse for a party ever — a tawdry, tacky, ta-ta-baring bacchanalia, crawling and bellowing with professional alkies and aspiring harlots) and wincing Sunday gospel brunches, plus Chippendales (that just happened), and bands like Breezy Rodio and, heart-sinkingly, The Good, the Bad and the Blues.
House of Blues is an 11-city chain of clubs and restaurants with an eye-singeing, carnivalesque, Hard Rock Cafe ambiance that grabs you by the lapels with neon gloves then barfs a bacon double cheeseburger down your throat to the blaring tunes of some godawful blues-rock cover band. You want chili-cheese fries and extra harmonica with that? Yup, sure.
Yet I don’t blame that lame chain (or its brethren, the hyper-branded, overpriced B.B. King Blues Club & Grill) for my distaste of the blues. I blame the music.
Obviously H.O.B. is but one garish facet of Chicago blues. Classy clubs, holes-in-the-wall, hipster bars — a constellation of blues venues lights up this big city. And there are whole taxonomies of blues music, just as there are for jazz (swing, be-bop, Dixieland), rock (metal, punk, new wave), etc. It’s a prismatic genre. It’s just not very good.
Giving me the blues.
I do like some blues — Robert Johnson’s oeuvre, Leadbelly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night,” and other classics — but I’m convinced the blues is an acquired taste. Jazz is too, I think.
Today I can take or leave jazz, but there was a serious stretch during college when I was an energetic jazz neophyte. I took an infectious jazz survey course (taught by the late Grover Sales, a cantankerous, spittle-flying savant) that made me a bit rabid. The first CD this inveterate hard-rocker ever bought was Miles Davis’ “Kind of Blue.”
My Dad, an incurable jazz aficionado, made sure I saw an array of jazz greats performing in the Bay Area before they passed on: Ella Fitzgerald, Buddy Rich, Stan Getz, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Lionel Hampton, the Duke Ellington Band and others. I was smitten. (If only I could have seen the late, great Gene Krupa, my elastic-limbed drum hero.) I also caught the classical music bug with Dad’s nudging. I’m still infected by its Beethovenian bite.
And then there’s the blues.
That one didn’t stick.
Many years living in Austin, Texas, exposed me to scads of blues at venerated shrines to the music like Antone’s and the Continental Club. It always sounded like the same guitar riff, same hi-hat shuffle, same plinky solos, coupled with growly vocals and, the nadir, infernal harmonica runs.
It still sounds that way. “It’s great for 20 seconds, and then I just want to go,” quips Fred Armisen in his new Netflix comedy show “Standup for Drummers.”
Armisen’s facial expressions are priceless as he feigns listening to a blues group, toggling from pleasant and expectant to baffled and bored and finally glazed.
On my 21st birthday in New Orleans, I tried to get lost in the local vibe in a blues bar. I had a beer and the band did its jammy, bluesy thing. My face sagged after the first song. Soon I was mummified in boredom.
(Surly sidebar: During two long-ago trips to Jamaica I was, naturally, subjected to endless reggae, which is as repetitive and predictable as the blues, and might actually be worse. I don’t think reggae will be an issue in Chicago.)
I have nothing but reverence for Chicago’s great, musically eclectic Chess Records, whose roster boasted Willie Dixon, Chuck Berry, Howlin Wolf, Muddy Waters, and Buddy Guy — some critical roots of rock ’n’ roll. I’m even considering taking a Chess Records tour.
Skipping the blues in Chicago, a naughty bit of blasphemy, I have my sights on a pair of bar-clubs known for multifaceted music bills, from rock and world, to country and punk: The Empty Bottle and the storied Hideout. There I hope to get my live-music fix, without the monstrous Planet Hollywood decor, baskets of mozzarella sticks and, god help me, the wheezing, whining plaints of a harmonica being tortured.