Concert Review: Studebaker John @ The Linda, 09/15/2023
The further away we get from the glory days of Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson, and other Chicago blues legends who electrified the West and South Sides of postwar Chicago, the more the fundamental postwar Windy City blues sound gets morphed into a hybrid of contemporary rock and Americana influences. Tail Dragger, who built a career around emulating Howlin’ Wolf, died a couple of weeks ago. Studebaker John, who once recorded with Taildragger, told me Friday night on a break between his two sets at the Linda that Taildragger’s passing was a surprise. He had not been sick, but he was days shy of 83 when he died two weeks ago. He died with his boots on. He was a road warrior, and when road runners pass, it’s usually quick.
Twelve years younger than Tail Dragger, Studebaker John played two sets that, like Taildragger, channeled Howlin’ Wolf, but with a significant difference. Just about every song he performed was an original. Still, he’s not like most white blues artists who eventually write songs that leave the now archaic “sleeping under a hollow log” kind of vocals in the past because, let’s face it, how many living performers have ever curled up for the night in the bowels of a dead tree?
Studebaker John plays fundamental get-down music, original theme songs for hard-working stiffs where the operative words are “shake” and “howl.” Women are willing but never fully defined partners of these inner-city denizens who view Friday nights in steamy dives under West Side subway tracks as an escape from the tedious everyday reality of dead-end jobs in slaughterhouses or otherwise working for the man.
Studebaker John is a master at this. He’s been playing this music for a half-century, going back to the days when blues legends would plug their guitars into extension cords in the back alleys of Maxwell St., playing for tips on Sunday mornings after pumping out five sets in clubs like Kingston Mines until 4 in the morning.
Playing to a sparse crowd of barely more than a baker’s dozen at the Linda, Studebaker John invited an intimate sprinkling of diehard blues lovers into his world, inciting us to howl at the moon and shake, shake, shake.
He played about 15 long, hypnotic covers over two sets, backed by drummer Earl Howell, whose credits include Chicago legends Magic Slim and Koko Taylor, and fill-in bass player Mike Azzi. John and Earl were joined at the hip while Azzi came along for the ride.
For much of the two sets, John played a resonator guitar that looked weather-beaten enough to have been a National Steel guitar from the late 30s, when they were used as substitutes for organs at southern holy roller tent revivals. John plays with a slide on his pinky, freeing his other four fingers to carry the melody. He has two mic stands within inches of each other, one of them holding a harp. So, while his fingers do the walking, his lips do the talking and wailing on harp. His delivery is sharp and hypnotic but never perfunctory.
A sampling of his lyrics:
“She wants to sell my soul to the devil/I will pay eternally.”
“I sin, but I’m no angel; I pray, but I’m no saint.”
“The more you find out, the less you want to know.”
“You’re searching for heaven, but hell is the only thing in sight.”
“I’m the one/the son of the seventh son.”