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Where Chicago sings the Blues

Today’s Wisch List column from the Kankakee Daily Journal

Where Chicago sings the Blues

The WISCH LIST

Nov. 21, 2009

When it comes to the Blues, there are legends. And there are myths.

And, then, there’s Robert Johnson.

As the story about the famed Mississippi Bluesman goes, one night during the late 1920s, Johnson – the man who would go on to record “Sweet Home Chicago” in 1936 – met the Devil at the lonely intersection of U.S. 61 and U.S. 49 in the heart of the Delta to sell his soul.

In exchange for Johnson’s eternal fate, the Devil tuned the youth’s guitar, played a few songs and then returned it, thus giving Johnson the ability to play the Blues like no other man.

Dead or alive.

Today, only two photographs of Johnson are known to exist. But at Kingston Mines, the quintessential Chicago Blues club tucked along “Blues Alley” on North Halsted Street, a framed pencil-sketch portrait of the musician hangs on the wall.

“Born 5/8/11,” reads the hand-written message scrawled beneath a drawing that shows Johnson clad in a Fedora. “Died 8/16/38 … at the hands of a jealous husband.”

Johnson’s untimely death – allegedly caused by taking a swig from a Strychnine-laced bottle of whiskey – took place 30 years before Kingston Mines even opened. But had Johnson been able to perform there, he surely would have felt right at (sweet) home.

And had a devil of a time.

Chicago, of course, is known as the “Home of the Blues.” And if that home has a playroom, it’s inside Kingston Mines.

In 1968, the original Kingston Mines was established on Lincoln Avenue as a coffee house, but soon was converted into “Chicago’s Blues Center” and became known as the hotspot for hearing traditional Chicago Blues on the city’s North Side.

Twelve years later, Kingston Mines moved to its present location at 2548 North Halsted, where today it bills itself as Chicago’s oldest and largest real Blues club and serves as a popular haunt for both city-dwellers and tourists alike.

“It’s just an international sort of destination,” Chris Dischner, of Roselle, said late last Sunday with a guitar case strapped to his back following a jam session. “Unlike maybe some other places, Kingston Mines is authentic.”

David Graziano, the author of the 2003 book “Blue Chicago: The Search for Authenticity in Urban Blues Clubs,” may take issue, having been quoted as saying, “Nowadays a lot of Chicago blues clubs feel like Hollywood movie sets. On the surface they feel ramshackle and rusty – the barstools are worn out, the plaster is falling off the walls, and the floor seems barely mopped …

“Like Hollywood’s best film noir, these clubs are in the business of producing middle-class fantasies of urban life, thrilling and dark. But in reality, most of these places feel more like Disneyland with booze.”

Whether its shabbiness is contrived, or not (and I’d argue that it doesn’t really matter), Kingston Mines, with its rollicking music and rich atmosphere, is undoubtedly a Chicago treasure.

And on Sunday, I paid the $12 cover to rediscover what the message just inside the club’s front door describes as a “Return with to the Southland of Yesteryear where the Blues was born.”

Inside Kingston Mines are two spacious rooms, featuring two stages, two bars and about 200 Jack Daniels whiskey signs. Above the main stage hangs a wooden sign with the misspelled reminder: “DANCING ALOUD,” while fliers hawking fried green tomatoes, fried okra and Seafood Gumbo Ya Ya food specials dot the hallways.

In both rooms, intricate murals cover the walls, displaying images of sprawling cotton fields, a riverboat floating down the Mississippi and streetscapes evoking New Orleans’ French Quarter.

Beyond the ambience, though, what Kingston Mines really is about, of course, is the music. And if it’s true that “the Blues ain’t nothing but a good man feeling bad,” then Kingston Mines’ performers are awfully good at feeling bad.
On Sunday night, Blues artist Charlie Love stood onstage, spilling stories of heartache backed up by his band’s guitar riffs and drumbeats, as well as his own harmonica.

“She left me for a man with a job,” Love sang, playing to the crowd. “She said Charlie Love is a no-good so-and-so. You know that ain’t true … Play the Blues, man.”

At times, Kingston Mines is as much comedy club as Blues club, which Bluesman Linsey Alexander displayed upon taking the main stage a few minutes after 11 p.m. and promptly apologizing to the crowd for his band’s tardiness.

“Sorry, we’re a little late,” Alexander said wearing a smirk and a cream-colored outfit. “But we had to go chase some women …

“And they’re still runnin’.”

Kind of like Kingston Mines itself, which you’ll find open until at least 4 a.m. every night.

Including Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Because the Blues takes no holidays.