Willie Kent

Delmark DD-653

Bassist Willie Kent is a genial, powerfully built west-side bluesman whose music reflects his personality: no-nonsense, sober minded, and unpretentious. He’s held down weekend gigs for years at neighborhood venues like the Majestic on Pulaski and Mr. Tee’s on Lake; in recent years he’s become increasingly well-known in the predominantly white north-side clubs as well. Kent is widely admired for his driving bass and sinewy vocals, but he’s been hampered by a tendency to rely on a handful of repeated themes. That isn’t a major handicap on the west side, where regulars drift in and out of a club all night and the music is only one component of an ongoing social scene. But in north-side clubs it can be a problem. It’s probably also one of the reasons Kent hasn’t recorded more.

Ain’t It Nice, a collection consisting primarily of originals, is Kent’s first recording for Bob Koester’s Delmark label–perhaps a signal that Delmark will record more contemporary blues artists. The recording has rough spots–some the result of the way Delmark chose to program it–but this disk should gain Kent wider public recognition.

Kent is a surefire crowd pleaser, but he’s a challenge to record. He’s no poet, and his arrangements tend toward the workmanlike rather than the flamboyant, despite the occasional insertion of slick rhythmic patterns. This kind of unembellished blues depends on instrumental panache to remain interesting. Fortunately his current band–billed as the Gents on club dates–consists of aggressive young players with the skill to keep the fires burning.

Kent has recently been trying to give his music a smoother dimension, infusing his trademark straight-ahead shuffles and slow blues with a dose of contemporary pop sophistication. “Memory of You,” the opener, showcases his exploratory urges in its slickly arranged intro, then plunges into a hard shuffle driven by drummer Tim Taylor. Taylor is impressive throughout; he’s developed into a first-rate percussionist, carrying the torch he believes was passed on to him when his father, guitarist Eddie Taylor, died in 1985.

Kent’s voice–meaty and deep, with a hint of strain and somewhat primitive phrasing–immediately evokes the sweaty informality of the west-side clubs. Harpist “Mad Dog” Lester Davenport, a marvelous instrumentalist who’s finally become known nationwide through his recent tour with Big Daddy Kinsey and the Kinsey Report, warbles intensely in the upper register, with an on-again-off-again harshness and harmonic nods to Big Walter Horton. The only problem with “Memory of You” is its overlong coda; Kent tends to drag songs on a bit even in live performance.

The repetitiveness is accentuated by the fact that the next selection is in the same key and virtually the same tempo. Yet “Check It Out” is a fine piece of work, with a crisp arrangement that features a well-constructed solo by guitarist Jacob Dawson. Dawson starts off in a Chuck Berry mode and then ascends into some stinging leads reminiscent of Magic Sam.

These two fast shuffles are followed by two similar-sounding slow blues. B.B. King’s “Worry Worry” is given a brooding intro, distinguished by an Otis Rush-like tension between major and minor keys. Kent’s good-natured pleading is infectious, Davenport’s harp skitters around the upper registers, and guitarist Luther “Slim” Adams contributes a light-fingered, tasteful solo. It’s a joy to hear a younger guitarist who understands that the music can speak for itself. “One More Mile,” a Muddy Waters tune, follows, with Davenport’s harp warbling sweetly behind Adams’s moody picking. Again the song goes on longer than necessary, despite the interesting lyrics (“I made a mistake with gamblin’ / I bet my money wrong / I was bettin’ on my baby / she wasn’t even at home . . . “).

By the time “One More Mile” is over the listener may be getting restless for some variety, and “Ain’t It Nice” weighs in with some refreshing rhythmic complexity. This track seems to be a turning point in this recording; Kent and his bandsmen kick in gear and never look back. Dawson contributes an attractive lithe rhythm pattern, while Davenport blows sustained phrases in a flatter and more metallic tone than he used before, appropriate to the piece’s danceable energy. Adams cleverly inserts notes into the loping rhythm, playing economically while keeping up with the song’s lively pace.

In contrast, “What You’re Doing to Me” is a straight shuffle with Kent’s vocals laying an original melody line over a riff similar to the one usually associated with Little Walter’s “Everything Gonna Be All Right.” This is straight-ahead Saturday-night Chicago juke-joint stuff, primarily a skillfully assembled collage of standard devices and even cliches made vital by the band’s enthusiasm. I get an almost irresistible urge to drive over to Mr. Tee’s, bite into a boiled pig-ear sandwich, and take a deep draft of Old Style when I listen to this music–somehow it doesn’t seem quite right without the racket of barroom conversation, the odor of whiskey and cigar smoke, and the roar of the el overhead.

Vocalist Bonnie Lee, a longtime Chicago stalwart who’s never received the recognition she deserves, has been a featured vocalist with Kent’s band for several years. Here she contributes her trademark number, “I’m Good,” with its choppy, lurching rhythm and eccentric boasting (“I’m so good, I’m so good, girls, ‘cuz I can knock on wood!”). She introduces the song with a warmhearted nod to sisterly solidarity (“Ladies! This is goin’ out to all the ladies, ‘cuz we’re good!”). Obviously intended as an anthem, it may not stir passions like Koko Taylor’s “I’m a Woman,” but it’s endearing and affirming. Lee, unlike some better-known chanteuses, can be both gritty and melodic, alternating gruff shouts with a full-timbred bluesy wail. She’s long overdue for a session as leader.

After “Ma Bea’s,” a playful impromptu jam named for a legendary west-side blues club, Kent goes straight into the most effective slow blues here, “Come Home.” The band rolls steadily behind Kent’s vocals as Davenport blows a raw-toned harp. Dawson comes in with a surprisingly hard-edged solo: he bites off notes fiercely and ascends slowly through the registers, steadily adding fire to the mix while punctuating his statements with scratchy string stroking between phrases.

Willie Kent’s determination to push himself in new musical directions is admirable, but the next cut, “Feel So Good,” is a pretty freaky endeavor. It’s an almost free-form pop ballad that sounds like an attempt to re-create the druggy eroto-mysticism some R & B singers specialized in during the 70s–utterly inappropriate for Kent and far too long. It never progresses much beyond the noodling stage; plenty of dexterity and imagination is on display, but too little coherence. Yet toward the end Adams partially redeems the gooey psychedelia with some lovely chiming harmonics and genuinely surrealistic jamming.

Fortunately Kent signs off with Junior Parker’s “Stranded,” a welcome return to the basics, a jaunty shuffle that provides a hearty conclusion to an intriguing portrait. But the old admonition to “support live music” still applies–as enjoyable as this recording is, Kent and company are even more fun in person.