Back in the mid-'70s, you could still see the best of the Chicago bluesmen in the strangest places. They played clubs and festivals and college joints, of course. But from time to time, you could also catch them at homecoming dances, makeshift coffee houses or a modest park shelter. In fact, Muddy Waters played the linoleum-floored rec room in the basement of my high school. It cost about $5 to get in, a twentysomething teacher dressed in a corduroy jacket and creased blue jeans was the sole chaperone, and the cool older kids primed the pump with wine skins filled with Boone's Farm Apple Wine and MD 20/20.
Waters didn't play much. Maybe 20 minutes sandwiched between the band's long introduction and brief boogieing outro. But he kicked off his portion of the set with a metallic, speaker-scratching slide solo that was so sly, so rough-and-ready that it changed my appreciation for what amplified music could be about.
Joe Nosek and Travis Koopman, the front men and main songwriters for the Cash Box Kings, obviously had similar eureka moments. Along with bassist Chris Boeger and drummer Kenny "Beedy Eyes" Smith, they effortlessly capture the power and muscular humanity of classic postwar Chicago blues on stages around the Midwest and across the big pond.
Even better, the Madison-based quartet translates the spirits of Waters, Little Walter, Robert Johnson and other blues giants into quality recordings that rely on feel rather than studio trickery to make an impression. It's a pure approach that serves them especially well on The Royal Treatment, their third and best CD to date. Recorded by Mark Haines over a single day at Chicago's Electrical Audio studios, the CD finds the foursome so at ease with themselves and their material that all 15 tracks flow together like a live set in the most intimate bar room. You can hear every idiosyncratic snap of Smith's snare drum head on Nosek's smoldering strut "The Low Roller," every quavering guitar string on Koopman's deliciously woozy intro to Waters' "Gypsy Woman." I could swear, every now and then, that you can even hear the light thwap of shoe leather as band members tap their feet in time with the music.
Intimate and energetic, this is the kind of disc that creates a palpable atmosphere, a believable sense of place. And with luck, maybe someday a young kid will hear Koopman's intro to "Gypsy Woman" or Nosek's sweet, wistful harmonica work on "Lou & Roxie's Rhumba" and come to realize in a flash that music "- even popular music "- can be about far more than slick lyrics, by-the-numbers beats and digitally enhanced power chords.