To contemporary listeners weaned on technical flash, blues harpist Little Arthur Duncan might sound downright primitive. His solos rarely venture outside a 12-bar structure, and he blows with a broad, ragged tone that sometimes sounds off-key and sometimes doesn’t seem to be in any key at all. But there’s a method to his minimalism: because he doesn’t fill between verses or embellish his leads, he always has plenty of breath for his trademark harsh squalls, focused shrieks, and swooping note bends. Born in Mississippi in 1934, he moved to Chicago in the early 50s and has been a mainstay on the south and west sides for decades; for a time he shared a house with Jimmy Reed and Little Walter. In 1989, Duncan recorded his debut under his own name, Bad Reputation (Blues King), which captured the half-inch-from-chaos excitement of a juke joint on Saturday night. The record should have made him a hit among blues revivalists, but before he could capitalize on it he was sidelined by dental problems. Fortunately, he may get a second chance: Cannonball Records reissued four tracks from Bad Reputation on the 1998 anthology Blues Across America: The Chicago Scene, and that same year Duncan bought himself a full set of dentures. Since then he’s released Singin’ With the Sun (Delmark), which showcased his grainy tenor vocals, and this year’s Little Arthur Duncan Live in Chicago! (Random Chance). Recorded in the summer of ’99, the concert disc is ample evidence that Duncan hasn’t lost a step as a live performer: On a loping cover of a Eugene Church doo-wop number, “Pretty Girls Everywhere,” his harmonica lines quiver and dip as if he’d gone weak in the knees, and he plays J.B. Lenoir’s “Mama, Talk to Your Daughter” as a chugging, dirt-simple Jimmy Reed-style shuffle, hitting a lot of reeds for a wide-mouthed tone. And his salaciously funky take on Slim Harpo’s “I’m a King Bee” would make a fine sound track for a 3 AM rendezvous at a bayou whorehouse. But “Duncan Donuts” best demonstrates how he’s made a virtue of his bare-bones approach: over a rollicking rumba beat, he spits out lean bursts of sound, and though his phrases tend to be clipped and concise, he covers a wide range of tone colors, from breathy and abstract to brilliant and direct–and his silences seem as carefully chosen as his notes. For this show Duncan will play with his regular band, the Back Scratchers, who also appear on the new CD. Saturday, December 9, 10 PM, Smoke Daddy, 1804 W. Division; 773-772-6656.


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