Even the most accomplished blues musicians often face a great challenge: to put together a show that will remain unique and interesting through an entire evening, especially if the musician’s own body of work is small. The usual standards by Muddy Waters, Elmore James, Junior Parker, Z.Z. Hill, et al have been covered by so many imitators in so many variations on the original styles that it’s almost impossible to bring anything new to them. Even an artist like Chicago’s Otis Rush, whose eight or ten classic sides on the Cobra label in the late 50s are among the most spellbinding and well crafted in all of recorded blues history, is forced in concert to rely upon recycled standards to fill the long spaces between his carefully dispersed signature tunes. All too often the result is a run-of-the-mill performance punctuated by moments of unforgettable brilliance.

Louisiana harmonica player Raful Neal appears to be currently grappling with this problem. Raful Neal: Louisiana Legend (his 1987 LP on the Florida-based Fantastic label) revealed him to be a powerful singer and songwriter in the Louisiana blues-R & B tradition, with a harmonica style owing equal amounts to Chicago’s Little Walter and Neal’s Louisiana mentor, Slim Harpo. On that LP, his band–led by his son Kenny Neal, who plays lead guitar–demonstrated an instinctively subtle feel that’s too often missing in young players. Kenny especially combined a sharp, stinging tone with a tasteful melodic sensibility well beyond his years.

So blues fans awaited with great anticipation Neal’s recent appearance at Rosa’s Lounge. Although his son Noel, who plays bass, has been living in Chicago for several years, Neal and the rest of his family band still live in Louisiana, and most of their touring has been in the south. Despite all the good music in Chicago, it’s surprisingly seldom that we get to hear a fresh sound from out of town.

Neal’s performance at Rosa’s in large part confirmed the impression given on his LP. His harmonica work has the breezy lightness and sensuality one would expect from a musician who spent several years with Slim Harpo, but he’s also capable of a full-bodied tone, bending notes with a guitarlike intensity and demonstrating a keen improvisational imagination behind his relatively sparse style. His voice, although made to sound somewhat tinny by an inadequate amplification system on Friday evening, is expressive and gritty, exuberant on fast shuffles and smolderingly passionate on ballads.

Neal has obviously worked hard to put together a show that will satisfy a diverse audience. His band–minus son Kenny, who’s currently gigging in Florida with a group of his own and has been replaced by another son, Raful Jr.–can play solidly in the blues tradition and yet branch out into contemporary pop-funk with equal enthusiasm and ease. Bassist Noel in particular demonstrates a remarkable technical facility, in his solos and his accompaniment, although he’s easily the one member of the band with the least allegiance to traditional blues and R & B. His popping, funky style brings a contemporary slickness to even the most low-key blues ballad.

Of course versatility is the mainstay of the successful musician. But an artist must be careful that a wide-ranging repertoire doesn’t take precedence over developing a personal style. Neal and his family came up in one of the richest blues and R & B traditions in the world. The characteristic Louisiana sound has a rhythmic impetus that is propulsive but light, in sharp contrast to the heavy thunder of contemporary funk and disco. There is also a long tradition of sophisticated, witty lyrics. The same Afro-Caribbean heritage that gave birth to jazz in New Orleans in the early 20th century fueled the complex rhythms and well-crafted story telling of classic Louisiana blues and R & B.

In some ways, Neal and his band do exemplify these traditions. The opening number at Rosa’s, an untitled blues-funk tune that featured Raful Jr. in string bending reminiscent of B.B. King’s, was pushed along by Noel’s insertion of triplets into the usual 4/4 funk bass pattern. Howlin’ Wolf used triplets to bring an added impetus to straight blues time on “Killing Floor” and “Squeeze Me, Baby,” and Noel has used this same simple but effective method to give new life to a potentially monotonous rhythmic pattern.

And Neal shows a unique imagination in his approach to much of his material. “It’s Getting Late in the Evening,” his own composition, is a loping blues number based rhythmically on Slim Harpo’s “Scratch My Back,” and it carries on the Louisiana tradition at its best. Infectiously joyful, with a subtly propulsive, understated backbeat and an elusive, mournful quality behind the song’s good-time spirit, it really shows off Neal’s abilities as singer, songwriter, and harp player. Likewise, his harp solo on the 60s soul standard “I Know a Place” was bitingly effective; in combination with his lusty vocal interpretation, it gave an entirely new meaning to the tune. Most singers interpret this song as a wistful rumination on a better world; Neal transformed it into a demand for such a place, rather than a gentle fantasy. On the other hand, his sweet, warbling harp break on the Eddie Boyd standard, “Five Long Years” gave a misty melancholy to a song often rendered as an angry testimonial of betrayal.

When Neal and the band strayed too far from blues and 60s-style R & B, however, things became somewhat ragged. Tyrone Davis’s “Turning Point” has been interpreted by so many artists that it’s probably impossible to give it any new dimensions; the Neal band attempted to breathe new life into it by playing a slightly altered chord progression on the bridge, creating a major key-minor key tension that sounded more dissonant than dramatic–it detracted from the song’s overall effect. Even on contemporary blues standards like Z.Z. Hill’s overdone “Down Home Blues,” the band–although it was tight and enjoyable enough–fell far short of the exhilarating musical and emotional involvement it demonstrated on original material, or on older R & B numbers, like “Raining in My Heart,” that haven’t been played to death. The mood inevitably sags during those long stretches when Neal and his band must rely on contemporary pop tunes or well-worn blues standards to fill the spaces between their own songs.

This is not to say that the evening didn’t have some fine moments. Neal sang Howlin’ Wolf’s “Little Red Rooster,” another song that’s been reinterpreted and covered to within an inch of its life, in a no-nonsense, Wolf-like roar, and Raful Jr. updated it a bit with his sophisticated chording and rhythmic variations. The band rescued Elmore James’s “The Sky Is Crying” from cliche by transforming it into a harp showcase, not the usual guitar interpretation in the James vein. Neal’s harp work on this one captured the mournful essence of slow blues: every note of his sparse solo was shaded with just the right emotion and tonal variation. It’s a mystery, though, why he took it upon himself to alter one of the most poetic lines in all of blues–“The sky is crying, look at the tears roll down the street”–to “look at the tears roll down my cheek.”

The high points, however, were Neal’s own compositions. “Luberta” is tough, funky blues laced with more than a whiff of bayou mystery and violence, and it shows both Neal and his band to their best advantage. The rhythm cooks in the great Louisiana funk tradition, Raful’s harp work is succinct and passionate, and his vocal interpretation conveys the perfect mixture of anger and desperation as he tells the story of a violent confrontation between a cuckolded man on the run and his recalcitrant lover.

It was the exhilaration of moments like this that made the audience somewhat restless during the band’s long warm-up sets later in the evening, sets primarily made up of craftsmanly but unimaginative reworkings of contemporary pop-funk. Similarly, Neal’s interpretations of contemporary blues standards, although initially entertaining, over the long haul offered nothing that couldn’t be heard in Chicago clubs seven nights a week, played by any number of interchangeable local house bands.

Neal and his family play some of the most musically and emotionally satisfying music to be heard today, especially when they dig into their rich Louisiana heritage and come up with compositions like “Luberta” or breathe new life into seldom-heard numbers by the likes of Slim Harpo and Lightnin’ Slim. As they continue to become more widely known–because of their tour throughout the country, and once Alligator Records reissues Neal’s LP and distributes it to a wider, more mainstream audience–Raful Neal and the Neal Brothers will have to devise new ways of filling the gaps between their original compositions. They need material that will entice and challenge their listeners. Given the band’s talent and musical diversity, and the rich lode at their disposal from the New Orleans-Baton Rouge tradition, it’s a task they should be able to handle.

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