LIVE: Studebaker John @ The Linda, 06/05/2022
Sometimes, you can tell within 10 or 15 seconds whether a band has the mojo to deliver a concert that’s going to send you to heaven. I’m thinking specifically of Steve Cropper opening a set with his Booker T. and The MG’s hit “Green Onions.” Part of that tsunami of sound that takes over your brain is your familiarity with the song. You’re instantly playing the number in your head because it’s been an earworm in your consciousness for most of your life.
Studebaker John had that same effect in less than 10 seconds Sunday night at The Linda. And he did it with all originals, many of which I’d never heard before. Along with Hugh Pool, John was my go-to guy when I was booking national acts for the Northeast Blues Society more than a decade ago. He has the ability to combine the bloodletting barbed wire attack of the West Side Chicago blues masters with the bravado of the nastiest hard rock icons without breaking into a sweat. And Sunday night he proved he hasn’t been just driving around in his namesake Studebaker Hawk in the 13 years since I last booked him.
The son of an Italian plumber, he began hanging out on Chicago’s Maxwell Street (the Sunday morning flea market of Chicago South and West Side blues artists) as a kid. There, John learned from such hardcore Chicago blues artists as Hound Dog Taylor and J. B. Hutto. He’s released 19 albums, two of them with British invasion blues rockers The Yardbirds and The Pretty Things. Mick Jagger walked into one of his performances at Buddy Guy’s Legends nightclub 25 years ago with a phalanx of bodyguards and young girls, told John that he sounded really good, and walked out with a copy of his latest CD in hand.
John’s mentor, Hound Dog Taylor (Alligator Records’ first signed artist), had six fingers on one hand. John seems to have four hands, playing slide on his pinky while at the same time carrying the melody with his other four fingers. He sings while almost simultaneously blowing harp positioned on a stand an inch away from his vocal mic. The guitar he plays looks like some Rube Goldberg device. His accompanists include his longtime drummer Earl Howell who plays like he and John are joined at the hip plus bass player Mike Azzi who leaves the flash to John while cushioning the bottom.
John named his record label, Avanti, after a sports car Studebaker put out in the early ’50s. He’s long owned a Studebaker Hawk whose engine he says is now frozen. But back in the day, he would go into his garage and break out that “Black Beauty” like a present-day Green Hornet (the 1930s and ’40s radio masked marvel.)
Soft-spoken in person, he cuts an iconic figure on stage in his cap, dark glasses, and black slacks. His repertoire is fundamentally West Side soul but with flourishes that would make Eric Clapton and Derek Trucks envious. There is a sense of danger in his delivery like he’s driving his Black Beauty on Michigan Drive at 105, ready to cash in his chips in a speed bump dump.
Years ago, John told me about a time he backed Son Seals, a Chicago blues veteran who had diabetes. One night in Kansas City John caught the blues master just before he hit the floor. “All of a sudden, his guitar was meandering. It just wasn’t really making much sense music-wise. He looked over at me and just fell out, collapsed basically and passed out on stage. I caught him before he hit the ground, and we dragged him offstage. The paramedics came and revived him, giving him some orange juice (for his diabetes.) He went back to the hotel, changed, came back, and played pretty much like his life depended on it. He came back and kicked ass the whole rest of the night.”
Studebaker John kicks ass every night. Fresh off the road from a gig in Rhode Island, he did a ten-minute soundcheck at The Linda and was off on two-hour-plus sets, taking us all with him.