Johnny Burgin – No Border Blues
Delmark Records DE-863
There’s a good reason why Johnny Burgin now calls himself The Worldwide West Side Guitar Man instead of Rockin’ Johnny, a nickname he’s gone by for decades. He truly is a man of the world. If you have any doubt, check out this stellar CD, which was recorded in Japan and pairs him with about a dozen top bluesmen and women from the Land of the Midnight Sun.
A longtime resident of the Windy City, Burgin was a fixture in the city after graduating from the University of Chicago and establishing himself on the West Side as a member of Tail Dragger’s band in the early ‘90s. He spent the better part of three decades polishing his skills alongside of a who’s who of talent in the city before pulling up stakes – first for the San Francisco Bay then Portland, Ore., before recently planting new roots in New Orleans.
Playing in a style that draws influences from Otis Rush, Jimmy Dawkins, Eddie Taylor and others, he’s a veteran road dog and former Blues Music Awards nominee who’s built a strong, grassroots following in both Europe and Asia – during which he became enthralled with the local talent he met along the way.
This CD – which was recorded at Fukuda Studio in Osaka and at Delmark’s Riverside Studio – is the culmination of an idea Johnny started developing in 1996, when he first traveled to Japan in the company of Dr. Ken Kawashima, a former UC classmate who’s a PhD in East Asian studies and an acoustic bluesman who records under the stage name Sugar Brown.
No Border Blues features contributions from several new friends Burgin made during that trip and three more tours that followed. He’s joined here by his regular rhythm section – Stephen Dougherty (drums) and Chris Matheos (bass) – who appear on the sole cut captured in the U.S. in a lineup that includes Nacomi Tanaka (guitar and vocals), Minoru Maruyama and Yoshi Mizuno (guitar), Lee Kanehira (piano and vocals), Kotez, Kaz Nogio and Iper Onishi (harp and vocals), Yoshimi Hirata and Hironori “Zee” Yanaga (bass), Fumiko Maejima, Ataka Suzuki and Takagiman (drums).
The 11-song set features a mix of originals and familiar covers that are delivered in both English and Japanese. Fear not, however. The sound they produce is so strong and so Windy City traditional, that you haven’t looked at the liner notes, you’d swear it was coming from the heart of the West Side and being delivered by some of best musicians America has to offer.
Carey Bell’s loping “One Day You’re Gonna Get Lucky” opens and features Onishi on harp and vocals atop a familiar lump-de-lump rhythm pattern, before Johnny takes over for an unhurried cover of Elmore James’ “Sunnyland” aided by powerful work on the reeds by Nogio, who doubles vocals with Kanehira – who divides her time between Chicago and her homeland – for a slow-and-steady treatment of Tampa Red’s “So Crazy About You.”
The pace quickens for Burgin’s original, stop-time rocker, “Hurry Up Baby,” delivered by Tanaka. Fans of classic Chicago piano will love Miss Lee’s rapid-fire original “Pumpkin’s Boogie.” Both ladies handle the lyrics in flawless English before Kotez is in command for Little Walter’s “I Just Keep Loving Her.” Subtitled “Mada Sukinanda,” it’s the first tune delivered in Japanese. His whirlwind attack on the harp would make the master smile.
Burgin handles the vocals for the next three tunes: a traditional take on John Brim’s “Rattlesnake” — which first saw light of day on Checker in 1953, his own composition, “Old School Prayer” — which comes complete with the same old-school feel, and “Two Telephones” – an obscure B-side cover from Chicagoan Bobby King – before the original instrumental “Samurai Harp Attack” – featuring three harmonica players – and “Sweet Home Osaka” — a reworked version of the Robert Johnson classic – bring the action to a close.
Available through most major retailers, and perfect for anyone with a taste for Chicago blues the way it used to be.