Blues guitarist Big Jack Johnson, a Mississippi native, cut his teeth in the 50s on the Delta juke-joint and house-party circuit, where in 1962 he met multi-instrumentalist Frank Frost and drummer Sam Carr and formed the band that would determine the course of much of his career: as Frank Frost & the Nighthawks they recorded for Sun Records subsidiary Phillips International and became one of the most popular blues acts in the region. In 1979, under the name the Jelly Roll Kings, the group broke into the national market with the rough-and-tumble Earwig release Rockin’ the Juke Joint Down, and shortly thereafter both Frost and Johnson began solo careers–though the Jelly Roll Kings stayed together as an ongoing part-time project. Johnson’s debut recording, 1987’s The Oil Man, earned him acclaim in Europe as well as the States with its taut balance of classic Delta intensity and impish humor (e.g. his sprightly instrumental cover of the folkie warhorse “Tom Dooley”). His latest, The Memphis Barbecue Sessions (M.C.), is a rootsy, mostly acoustic affair that augments his stinging fretwork and gruff vocals (which evoke legends from Rice Miller to Howlin’ Wolf) with Kim Wilson’s tubular harmonica and Pinetop Perkins’s barrelhouse piano. But last year’s Roots Stew, also on M.C., provides a better foretaste of Johnson’s live show: he usually plays with his all-electric band, the Oilers (as he will here), peeling off spitfire single-string leads and slide-guitar figures that swirl with piercing overtones. He occasionally tempers his fire with a bit of melancholy (“Late Night With Jack”), but at heart he’s a straight-ahead juker, with a clear, keening tone and driving rhythmic sense that convey both life-affirming optimism and life-hardened ferocity. Thursday, February 21, 9:30 PM, Buddy Guy’s Legends, 754 S. Wabash; 312-427-0333.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/James Fraher.