In this era of political correctness, it’s refreshing to find an artist who won’t apologize. Eric Burdon, best known for fronting the British Invasion 60s group the Animals, and, in the 70s, infusing staggering vocal energy into the funky percussive War, is that bloke.

On this beautiful summer night, under a pale blue sky with fluffy clouds, Burdon’s emergence on the Miller Lite South Stage, in Naperville, one of Chicago’s most pristine suburban enclaves, is immediate. An elite upper deck packed with beer sluggers of all shapes and life-styles is off to the side. Hundreds more fans, on lower ground, some wearing the expected tie-die or hemp necklace, surround the centre stage.

The huge fest was put together by the Naperville Exchange Club. Organizer Ray Kinney says, “This being our 23rd year, we have raised more than $12 million for charities that are dedicated to ending child abuse and domestic violence, so we are overjoyed with the success of Rib Fest.”

“As for Eric Burdon and the Animals, they put on a tremendous show – Eric Burdon stole the show with his impressive array of hits and he delivered them perfectly!” he added.

Kinney met up with the press at the gate and explained, “We work very closely with Jam Productions in securing the talent each year. They outdid themselves and we are very grateful for their assistance and professionalism.”

And, looking around, I was reminded of the film, ‘Field of Dreams.’ “Build it and they will come” could have been the slogan for this well-run fest which started in the corn fields and now boasts world-class acts.

But, let’s get back to Burdon. There is a strangely familiar quality to this nearly 70 year old’s stage presence. Burdon is entirely who he says he is. He doesn’t apologize for not still being the surly ted that once rivaled Jagger. He doesn’t hide the fact that his generous head of hair is now wondrously white. And, though he can’t always hit the notes his younger incarnation nailed precisely, there’s no worries. He’s got these stacks of supportive fans at the ready; anxious to fill in the most memorable lines.

Keys, electric guitar, drums and bass collide for ‘When I Was Young.’ “My first love, when I was 13, she was brown and I was green,” he wails. Burden holds up the mike many times during the set – a gesture of friendship and good will. He mumbles about how we had “Paul, John, George” back in the day. He confides, in his gravel meets second hand tire voice that we were living a dream. “I was such a rotten little punk,” he reminds us, and though it’s easy to imagine his younger image as he sings, we don’t have to do so. He’s magnificent now.

Burden grabs a tambourine and it becomes another release for his amped-up adrenaline. ‘Don’t Bring Me Down’ has that archaic, repetitious, undeniably seductive riff. You don’t know whether to dance to it or imagine yourself trapped in a broken elevator shaft fighting for your life. But, basically, you just want to scream along. The riveting, yet translucent skeleton of this song lends itself to elaborate keyboard and electric guitar solos.

I’m a little shaken, however, by the next lead-in. It’s hauntingly familiar melody wise, but something’s off-kilter. Got it! ‘I’m Just a Soul’ has undergone a reggae rhinoplasty. I want my classic rock fix and I sense similar discomfort from some of the lawn people. But, Burdon seems so Zen about it, that I finally allow this unapologetic and unorthodox version to wash over me, and, although I’m not sold, I’ve decided not to sulk.

Those same angst-filled lyrics, “Everybody’s got problems/I’ve had my share,” bring me back to my comfort zone and I’m at peace with the man. After all, he’s flapping his arms around the stage and loving every moment of it.

Just as I’m swooning to the opening riffs of ‘Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood’ a fan catches my eyes. “Psssst” he says. In the background Burdon is scatting; his voice no longer has the grit of a mean drunk. This guy claims he met Burdon in England at the Coatham hotel in Redcar, England. “Pssst, can you let Eric know about this?” he asks. Can I get a note backstage, is what he’s aiming for. .

Well, no, I tell him. I’m just a run of the mill writer, but thanks for the tip. Although, I’m mildly curious about who the mystery man is – he does have a British accent and may have been Burdon’s cousin as far as I know, but distracting rough-shod grunts now ruminate ‘Red Cross Store’, a song from Burdon’s 2006 blues album ‘Soul of a Man’ CD, and which is now in mid-swing.

It’s a song with deeper racial overtones than one might catch, because musically it’s completely captivating. This twelve-bar blues with no intention of toning down, again, offers no apologies. Some spectacular slide work rears its stunning head and then Burdon sticks the mic in our anonymous, delighted faces. We’re happy to oblige and pretend we’re collectively Chicago’s finest blues artists. Burdon does make us feel that way.

“I don’t want no sugar in my coffee, makes me mean/I don’t want to be a soldier/I don’t wanna die,” the lad rants. When Burdon grunts, “Ah Ah Ah Ah,” he becomes the welcome ghost of his hero John Lee Hooker.

Red Young is the keyboard player extraordinaire this fine night. The whole band rocks and moves in synch, their energies matching that of Burdon at every junction,

Don’t get me wrong about that, but the long-haired musician plays with the determination and intensity of a handyman’s socket wrench. Now, that Burdon’s hitting the blues, heat rises. “When you got a beautiful woman/ Never trust your friend,” he warns. “He stole her from me, so I stomped on his head,” is the line which really rattles the cage. Burdon grabs a drum stick and a clave and when he sings, “boom boom, boom,” in a husky unabashed tone, he politely acknowledges the legacy of John Lee Hooker,

“Don’t take it personally/I need you right now/I need you right now in the parking lot,” he veers. Burdon spends many moments caressing the vocal lines many of us recognize and then twisting them into unexpected shapes.

Then the bass launches into the dark hellish timbre of ‘It’s My Life.’ An anthem to working class youth, it’s divine. Several measures of acoustic, uber-Flamenco guitar precede what we’ve all been waiting for.

The story goes that Burdon heard this song sung by a Northumbrian folk singer named Johnny Handle. Because he was touring with Chuck Barry and looking for some contrasting material, he decided to perform this one. His producer, Mickey Most, the man who, oddly enough, managed the adorable Herman’s Hermits, thought it was a bad idea.

But, maybe Most didn’t know that 16 year old Georgia Turner, daughter of a Kentucky miner, was recorded singing ‘The Rising Sun Blues’ in 1937. And, maybe Most didn’t catch that in the 40s, Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly had a shot at it, too, and maybe this was a goldmine of a song.

But, like it or not, when Animal Hilton Valentine played a chord progression in A minor that wrapped tightly around Burden’s voice like chrysalis round a moth, during their one-take recording and it subsequently received airplay, the song rose quickly to the top of the US, UK, Canadian and Swedish charts in 1964.

And, of course, Burden being the unapologetic stalwart, altered the song’s point of view. He assumed the role of beaten-down son with the gambling father and drunken mum. Dylan, who had covered the song earlier in the 60s, was accused of plagiarism because Burden’s version became such a sought-after classic.

But, tonight, though Burden has lost that youthful charming scowl, he still threw himself completely into the bawdy lyrics and minor-edged cadence. Even surrounded by manicured grasses, we were brought back to that low-life brothel in New Orleans.

Seated, Burdon returned to the tambourine. Thick wedges of organ and electric guitar made a steady climb, soon joined by honky tonk piano.

“I’m going back to end my life,” Burdon sings in a voice sharp as a cut beer bottle’s dangerous edge. The audience sings along and Burdon’s phenomenal weathered voice trails off, accentuating the narrative conflict, without apologies.

As the hard-working band scurries off into the night, the tie-dyes, hemp smokers and sports fans unite to draw them back. It didn’t take too much convincing, though.

“We Gotta Get Out of This Place’ with its contagious patter, grimy, yet somehow romantic and desperate message, brought everyone to their feet.

Waiting for the train back to the inner city, I met a woman in her twenties who had attended the concert. She was travelling with her husband and son and thought they would miss the train home. So, for six blocks, in hot leather boots and a resale shop blouse with flowing hippie sleeves, she jogged, with tired, six year old Sebastian, through the suburban streets.

Explaining that she had an “old soul” and couldn’t get enough of classic rock, she was tired, but satisfied. She had prayed for ‘House of the Rising Sun’ to be performed. That was her favourite.

I was satisfied, too. All the hits on the list were scratched off. Except my state of calm was soon interrupted by some grumpy passersby.

“Ach. He didn’t play ‘Spill the Wine,’ one Cubs fan complained. “Yeah,” said a platinum blonde dragging a beach blanket. But, the six- year old Sebastian and I understood. It was past Burdon’s bedtime, not to mention ours.

‘Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood’ was an understatement. A man who has accomplished what he has and given the world probably the most expressive voice in rock history doesn’t have to apologize to anyone, guys. Ach, just go to bed.


Photos by Jim Summaria www.jimsummariaphoto.com. More information about Eric Burdon can be found at www.ericburdon.com.

















Related Links:


http://www.ericburdon.com/
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