“Something about the poetry and philosophy of the blues” initially grabbed Sugar Blue and has kept him pumping out first class melodies on his blue harp for decades, and that something burst through the air in full force at the Old Town School of Folk Music.

Blue still gets a kick out of his early years. Before launching into his unplugged set with drummer and percussionist, James Knowles; manager and wife, Ilaria Lantieri Blue, on bass and vocals; and lead acoustic guitarist, Harry Hmura, he responded to several questions onstage during an interview with radio personality Barry Dolan about his formative years. When asked about New York busking, Blue laughed as he described the makeshift instrument played by one of his musician friends, Washboard Bill.

“It had legs – three frying pans around it. It sort of looked like a spaceship from Star Trek, but he could work that thing.” The interview also rekindled memories of performing with blues pianist Roosevelt Sykes and brassy Victoria Spivey.

He even had stories about running into the great Nina Simone at the Montreux festival – Blue won a Grammy for his rendition of ‘Another Man Done Gone’ there in 1985, and watched her pull a shotgun out of her handbag but that’s a whole other story.

Blue’s career path has been shaped by some awesome players. It was Memphis Slim, who inspired Blue to go to Paris, and when Keith Richards heard Blue’s solo work on a Louisiana Red record he knew that was the sound the Stones needed to complete their studio work on 'Some Girls'. Says Blue about these important connections, “I have had the good fortune to be embraced in so many ways…”

But Blue was told by Memphis Slim that he had to live the blues by spending time with the artists, and sharing meals and so his years in Chicago allowed him to pay his dues and reap the rewards of such rich relationships. Tonight’s concert material gave the audience more than a glimpse of what he gleaned.

From the album, 'Code Blue', the band performed first of all 'Bluesman', a syncopated tremendously upbeat original. Blue expressed lots of attitude by virtue of his gravel-tinged voice and screaming solo, which made these down-to-earth lyrics bristle:

“I’m a bluesman that’s what I am/If you don’t like it, I don’t give a damn.”

“In appreciation of the great James Cotton,” the band played 'Cotton Tree', a co-write by both Blue and Ilaria (During the writing of this review, Ilaria was still expecting a baby, but prior to publication, the couple welcomed James Blue into their family). It started off with a beautiful Spanish style guitar solo. In fact, a couple of veteran fans inferred during intermission that, while Blue wasn’t moving around as much as he used to, he had grown tremendously as a songwriter. They marvelled at the raw beauty of the ballad. “Did you hear the one they wrote?” they bantered, discussing the lyrical content and the smart, jazz-inflected arrangement, which was a far cry from their standard blues fare.

Indeed, as Knowles piped up the heat on congas, Blue’s vocals drifted in softly to the already smooth samba. Cascading clusters of piercing notes rippled through the nearly sold out room. Stressing his allegiance to a genre that has never let him down, Blue sang, “I’ll be in your corner like the blues will always be there,” before banging out plush orchestral hits in a contagious call and response.

After a traditional Sonny Boy Williamson tune, ‘Don’t Start Me to Talkin’, he waded through 'The Key to the Highway', a Big Bill Broonzy signature where he showed off his sweet side. While his acoustic lead guitarist toyed with the melody, Blue vamped majestically underneath. Soon, he and his blues harp compadre moaned like a baby in a style, which recalled the late Louis Armstrong.

On another nostalgic note, Blue suggested that the Grammy he won should have been for both artists. “If Sonny Boy was around, I’d give it to him, but since he’s not, I’ll have to go with it,” he exclaimed, with a trace of melancholia. Blue sat alone for 'Another Man Done Gone', emitting low vibrating growls, which demarcated the moving lyrical lines. The story spoke soberly of prisoners – “Another man done gone/He’s on the country farm…” Blue’s powerhouse solo sounded like a train wolfing down then spitting out steam. During ‘Pontiac Blues,’ another Sonny Boy tribute, Blue referenced Bill Haley into the melodic phrases while the phenomenal Knowles hit hard, fast and unapologetically.

“We’re going to do a blues by the greatest trumpet player who ever lived,” Blue said, detonating the savoury dips of the Miles Davis tune, 'All Blues'. His clipped tones morphed into swaggering phrases. Knowles executed more giant steps and, while the guitar solo swung, Blue’s fingers fluttered around the harp, as if in anticipation of something big happening next. Emitting drones, he raised one hand dramatically, and as he loosened it the sound dissolved into a seductive hum.

Ilaria Blue, dressed in black jeans and tunic, tossed back her gleaming brunette hair and closed her eyes when she wasn’t enthusiastically connecting with the other players. She kept up a dynamic and steady bass line, and was clearly enjoying the spirit of the evening. Blue’s repetitive riffs grew higher as he sang Cotton’s 'One More Mile'. Ilaria Blue described this song as one of “two funkier versions that we also play during our electric shows.” By the song’s end, Blue looked like a man cast under a magical spell as he breathed life into the harp.

Blue’s visionary jazz chops would not be ignored. On the timeless classic, 'Sunny', Knowles was especially superb at creating a fluid brew of counter rhythms. This solo was inviting and intense, sleek and silky, proving that besides conquering the blues he can cleverly carve out a distinctive jazz arrangement.

‘Lip Service and Lies’ is from Blue’s newest album, ‘Raw Sugar – Live'. Following a rubato harp intro, Blue sang, “You told me you love me/You know that’s a lie/The thing that you do/You do on the sly…” A series of heated allegations followed. The song swung especially hard due to the “jazzed up bassline borrowed from Michael Jackson.”

Another track from 'Code Blue' was ‘I Don’t Know Why.’ It borrowed greatly from the larger blues emporium. The lyrics grew more and more desperate: “I’m sitting here all alone/My heart feels like a stone and I don’t know why…” This truculent 12-bar made real time cease to exist.

Parked centre stage, Blue performed Junior Well’s trademark, 'Messing with the Kid'. “There’s a wonderful story about this one,” Blue teased, his signature cap drooped over one playful eye, “but I don’t have time to tell you…” Blue totally drank up the spotlight. This last tune didn’t need a shot of steroids; it drove home the point real nicely - Sugar Blue and his band, unplugged or otherwise, quench the imagination and satisfy the soul.

The photographs that accompany this article were taken by Philamonjaro at www.philamonjaro.com.

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