Little Al Thomas was a child of Maxwell Street in the 30s and 40s, but he favors the Memphis-Texas elegance of B.B. King over the unrefined Chicago street blues he grew up around. Though he started singing professionally in the early 60s–and though he’s been a south-side celebrity for decades–it wasn’t until last year that he recorded his debut album, South Side Story (Cannonball), tackling everything from moody after-hours laments (“You’re Breakin’ My Heart”) to jaunty, brass-burnished romps (“Stranded in St. Louis”). Onstage, Thomas isn’t the world’s most polished performer: he tends to leave too much downtime between songs, and he has a distracting habit of chewing gum while he’s singing. From time to time he hews too close to King’s style, but at his best he adorns it with fresh, even startling embellishments. His delivery on “Memphis Girl”–half shriek, half croon–sounds like B.B. stubbing his toe on a bedpost, and on “Somebody Changed the Lock on My Door” he melds a cuckold’s anguish and a jester’s merry fatalism, ascending into a yearning, youthful wail that’s miles from King’s rich, almost stately vocal presence. Thomas is accompanied here (as on the album) by the Crazy House Band, his longtime backing group, anchored by veteran percussionist Mot Dutko. Its tight interplay and raw sound transform Memphis Slim’s playful “Stepping Out” into a juke-joint barn burner; guitarist John Edelmann’s slide work on “Rollin’ & Tumblin'” colors that rowdy Delta standard with swampy menace; and Dutko’s lurching second-line rhythms transport “Memphis Girl” to the backstreets of New Orleans. Sunday, 9 PM, B.L.U.E.S., 2519 N. Halsted; 773-528-1012.


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