The band on Big James Montgomery’s debut as a leader, 1998’s Funkin’ Blues (Jamot), had a winning way with riff-driven soul workouts and 12-bar blues barn burners–though they sometimes soloed with more energy than direction or recklessly cranked up a tempo until a tune all but flew apart. Since then Montgomery has overhauled the Chicago Playboys, so that only he and a longtime cohort, tenor saxist Charlie Kimble, remain from Funkin’ Blues; the current lineup features a new guitarist, new bassist, and new drummer. The most important change, however, is the addition of keyboardist Joe Blocker: his instrument contributes especially to the present band’s more polished but no less soulful sound, lending a gospel elegance to its hard-booting groove and carrying some of the burden previously borne by the horns. I’ve seen this version of the Playboys live (a CD should be available in a few weeks), and they acquit themselves admirably on blues standards–especially guitarist Mike Wheeler, with his typically Chicagoan blend of Texas-to-Memphis panache and back-alley aggression. But these are musicians who’ve clearly given their hearts and souls to the no-frills hard funk of the late 60s. Like James Brown and his pioneering JB’s, for whom every instrument was essentially a rhythm instrument, the Playboys bring a blunt physicality to whatever they play. Montgomery has a deep understanding of chord structure, and his raspy tone and direct, no-nonsense phrasing make his harmonic explorations almost palpable, his lines digging in like a plow turning the soil. And when Kimble solos, he bundles concise, hard-edged riffs into almost architectural shapes; he seems to be methodically stacking his musical ideas, climbing in pitch or intensity as he adds each new layer. The one exception to the Playboys’ tough, minimalist approach is new bassist C.C.: though he’s a solid, unobtrusive accompanist, when he gets the spotlight he turns into a real showboat. Pounding his strings with fingers, knuckles, or even fists, he sounds like he belongs in a flamboyant 70s fusion-funk outfit–and he’s the center of attention visually too, strutting and dipping across the stage and into the crowd like a rubber-legged rooster. Saturday, December 23, 10 PM, Back Porch Stage, House of Blues, 329 N. Dearborn; 312-923-2000 or 312-559-1212.


Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Jackson.