Age hasn’t diminished Koko Taylor–in fact, the Queen of Chicago Blues sounds more focused and passionate at 65 than ever before. On this year’s Royal Blue (Alligator) she bursts out of the chute with a propulsive opening cut, “Save Your Breath,” then jumps straight into a roadhouse boogie, “Hittin’ on Me,” growling and spitting in vintage Taylor style as her band burns a path under her feet. On her own “Don’t Let Me Catch You (With Your Drawers Down),” a sassy, take-no-mess anthem set to a lurching minor-key grind, you can almost see her baring her teeth. And on Melissa Etheridge’s “Bring Me Some Water,” Taylor summons the power to shout down guest guitarist Kenny Wayne Shepherd’s knuckle-blistering pyrotechnics–but instead of breaking up into an inarticulate holler, her voice retains more than enough heart to do justice to the lyrics. Her gentler side, though she doesn’t often display it, is just as affecting: on the Ray Charles chestnut “But on the Other Hand Baby,” she descends from her usual constricted, upper-register rasp into a tender, even tremulous alto croon, full of longing and vulnerability. The opener at this New Year’s Eve show, Artie “Blues Boy” White, made some noise on the national R & B charts in 1977 with a Bob Jones tune called “Leaning Tree.” Now 63, he’s no longer at his peak, and on his current CD, last year’s Can We Get Together (Malaco/Waldoxy), he sometimes bites off more than he can chew: the challenging intervals and long phrases of “Lonely Lady,” for instance, cry out for a more supple and nuanced vocal instrument. But he’s still a suave balladeer with a rich, grainy baritone and mellifluous vibrato; he can bring a real erotic charge to lovesick anthems like the title tune and “My Dessert.” And on “One More Time,” an ode to his late wife written for him by his bandleader, keyboardist Stanley Banks, he sings in a world-weary, gospel-inflected croon as broad and sweet as any he’s ever committed to record. Unlike Taylor, White is less than polished onstage–despite his years of experience, his movements are blocky, and sometimes his attention seems to wander–but the intensity and emotional heat in his voice usually more than make up for that. Sunday, December 31, 9:30 PM, Koko Taylor’s Celebrity, 1233 S. Wabash; 312-566-0555.


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