Devil in a Woodpile

at the Hideout, November 10

By Pat Daly

Sweet home Chicago. So sweet my tummy hurts.

For anybody who has scoured the city’s blues emporiums during the past ten years in search of some shred of the rumor of the ghost that was the Chicago blues, those three words undoubtedly cause a wince, a gag, or worse.

It’s perversely fitting that a song by an out of towner has become the national anthem of the Chicago blues club circuit. “Sweet Home Chicago” is a beautiful song, and through the miracle of digital technology you can hear it in its raw unfettered glory on a two-CD set called Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings. Though it’s built around Johnson’s spectral moan and primitive guitar, which may strike ears used to the rockified domestic brew heard nightly at Kingston Mines as alien, it’s all there, almost: the basic math (“One and one is two”), the bald come-on (“Baby don’t you want to go”), the guitar heroics, and the big beat. There’s one slight difference, though, from the Belushi-Aykroyd hit: The song isn’t about coming home to Chicago. It’s about leaving Chicago.

And leaving Chicago is what the blues seems to be doing. While many clubs still put a full roster of blues-oriented talent on their stages every week, the confluence of competition, tourism, laziness, and maybe Stevie Ray Vaughan’s influence has nearly obliterated any continuity between today’s blues club experience and that of the electric-blues heyday of Chicago in the 50s. And it doesn’t help that the crowd-pleasing tripe being offered up is often, as in the case of “Sweet Home Chicago,” not even Chicago blues.

In an article for the Chicago Tribune a few years back, blues writer Bill Dahl ran down a litany of the offending tourist fodder: “Mustang Sally,” “Crosscut Saw,” “Stormy Monday,” and “Next Time You See Me,” among many others. It’s once great, now perfunctory party music from Texas and Memphis, generally presented without a trace of the menacing sting that made Koko Taylor’s “Wang Dang Doodle” sound more like a threat than an invitation back in ’65. In his article, Dahl quoted Alligator Records head Bruce Iglauer on the threat of this endless smiley-faced pandering: “I’m very worried that ‘Sweet Home Chicago’ has become the blues version of ‘When the Saints Go Marching In,’ and that everybody is expected to play it.” We should all be worried. In Bransonized America, a tidy little blues revue filled with predictable, timeworn favorites is what keeps the customers coming through the doors.

Authenticity isn’t necessarily the answer, of course. In the wrong hands, encyclopedic knowledge and reverence for history can be a thoroughly unspontaneous bummer. But when schooling meets exploratory passion, as it does in the local roots trio Devil in a Woodpile, it can remind you why history’s worth learning in the first place.

Devil in a Woodpile is a little porch combo of Rick “Cookin'” Sherry, Paul K., and Tom Ray. Ray you may know from the Bottle Rockets or as a charter member of the Waco Brothers. Sherry and K. may be familiar to you if your blues scavenging has recently brought you into contact with Delta blues legend (and Robert Johnson protege) Honeyboy Edwards, whom they’ve been backing for the past few years. Ray plants the foundation on stand-up bass, K. dazzles with a stunning array of voicings from his National steel guitar, and Sherry adds his harp, washboard, and junkyard bark out front or in back as appropriate.

These guys are no more successful at evoking the 50s Chicago blues scene than any of the journeymen working your average north-side blues club. The difference is that they aren’t pretending to try. Their repertoire reaches further back and deeper down, to a lode of rural American music mostly from before World War I, when musicians of every stripe were unself-consciously transmitting their culture via songs that don’t so much defy categorization as shrug it off. Blues, ragtime, hillbilly music, pop–put a name on it if you must, but it’s all the same to Devil in a Woodpile. Strung together, the songs echo and scrape against one another to evoke a seamless roots-music dream that is at once ancient and completely outside of time. The trio’s excellent new CD, also called Devil in a Woodpile (Bloodshot), throws the whole gumbo at the listener with an offhanded directness, purposefulness, and love that is the antithesis of, and maybe the cure for, the Chicago blues problem.

The band’s CD-release party last Tuesday at the Hideout displayed its magic in extreme, almost laughable fashion. The show took place in the midst of a severe windstorm, and the club wasn’t spared from the power outages that dotted the city. Patrons of the Hideout, where Devil in a Woodpile holds court on Tuesdays, know that the place already looks like it might have floated up intact from Mississippi a hundred years ago. Crowded, smoky, and dimly lit by candles and lanterns, the room offered a setting more sympathetic than usual to the set. Attendees who had driven down Elston through sheets of rain and been blown in through the front door by gale-force winds could be excused for thinking they had been part of some massive communal time-travel accident.

Given the band’s all-acoustic format, fortunately, electricity was superfluous. The band was its own power plant. Paul K.’s fingerpicking on “Steel Guitar Rag” was as riveting as a hundred sweaty, grimacing electric solos, and his double-time outro on “Buck Dance” was hair-raising. Sherry’s carny-barker-meets-blues-shouter persona cut through the pale haze like the headlight on the proverbial northbound train as he sang songs about drinking (“The Drinking Song”), barbecue (“Barbecue”), and little girls (the Chicago-style “Good Morning Little School Girl”). His washboard work exposed possibilities for the instrument far beyond the ken of those who’ve only seen it played in a zydeco setting, while his harp burped, hooted, and cried.

It’s quite possible that somewhere else in Chicago a professional blues combo was entertaining a roomful of conventioneers and frat boys. The repertoire was tired and the presentation cliched, but the band got paid, the bar moved some MGD, and those who sang along to “Sweet Home Chicago” probably experienced some genuine, if misguided, civic pride. But at the Hideout, by the time Tom Ray relinquished bottom-end duties to Gary Elvis and his tuba, Devil in a Woodpile had lullabied, brutalized, spooked, pandered to, ignored, amazed, rocked, and generally uplifted the sizable crowd through a dexterous and relentless attack of gospel, blues, pop, swamp music, and hillbilly music played with a nod, a wink, a snarl, a grin, or closed eyes as the situation demanded. The Woodpile was on fire.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Jim Alexander Newberry.