Local blues guitarist A.J. Love doesn't just like Chicago blues; he lives it and loves it. Though he has family and work responsibilities here in town, he drifts down to the Windy City a few times a week simply to listen to its stars and learn from them.
He calls the Chicago blues - the stuff that Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf pioneered and that contemporary musicians like John Primer keep alive - the "real blues," not only because it's homegrown but because it's so difficult to master without having lived some of the heartbreaking stories its legends tell.
Love says that it's taken him many years as a performer to prepare his heart and mind for the challenge of the Chicago blues and that local folks looking for a dose of wisdom from the trenches should check it out.
"The guys who play Chicago blues are a uniformly cool bunch of people, really easygoing but with a lot to teach people who take the time to listen," he says. "And being just a couple of hours from the center of where this is happening - and where it all started - means it's possible to get to know them pretty well."
Still, Love understands that most folks can't make musical field trips very often, which is why he works to bring the Chicago blues to Madison at a regular showcase. Since January, those rolling, heavy bass lines - plus world-weary vocals, shuffling drums, harmonica riffs and guitar work that's improvisational but more minimal than a blues-rock jam session - have been converging at the Frequency during Tuesday happy hours, which now bear the name Chicago Blues Tuesdays.
The highlight of the event is a performance by a big-name bluesman - or woman - straight from the clubs of Chicago. Windy City performers have included guitarists Primer, Linsey Alexander and Wayne Baker Brooks, as well as harpist Billy Branch. They're accompanied by Madison's bluest backing band: drummer Joey Banks, bassist Chris Boeger and harpist Joe Nosek from Cash Box Kings, and vocalist Queenie McCarter of Queenie & the Blue Cats.
Though it's still relatively new, the event draws a big crowd for a 5:30 show, often packing 80 people into a space that only holds about 100. And while the event has rolled back to a once-a-month format until September, Love is still plugging away at his mission: to turn people on to the message and the musical wisdom of these artists. The next Chicago Blues Tuesday, on July 21, benefits Madison bluesman Oscar Wilson, who is battling cancer.
Love says he had a tricky time finding a venue for the series early on. It's difficult to sell something that a lot of people don't know or understand, even if the event's mission is to get people acquainted with it.
Hearing Love describe the situation, it's hard not to imagine the scene in Ghost World where Steve Buscemi's character, a quiet and thoughtful fan of traditional blues, has both his ears and his soul assaulted by a band called Blues Hammer. They tell the crowd, "We're gonna play some authentic, way-down-in-the-Delta blues, so get ready to rock your world," then launches into an offensive, obnoxious rock tune.
"A lot of venue owners told me that the blues don't work here [in Madison]. It turned out they'd tried a couple of gigs with blues rock bands that didn't go over well," Love explains. "[Blues rock] is really about guitar pyrotechnics, not rhythm and message like the Chicago blues. Basically, it's like comparing apples and oranges."
Love's not out to badmouth those who've added rock to the formula. He just wants people to know what they've been missing. In other words, while people are looking for inspiration from religious figures or great works of literature, they might just find it in their own backyard, with a beer and a bass and a whole lot of rhythm.
Says Love, "There's a real power and intensity to this music, the kind of thing that can change you for the better."