It takes courage to open an evening’s festivities at a music club with an entire set of material slated for upcoming album release. After all, longtime fans aren’t familiar with any of it. That didn’t deter the Rhythm Rockets at Katerina’s on West Irving Park Road from introducing their latest set list additions to a sizable crowd on Saturday evening. From the warm reception those relatively unfamiliar numbers received, the CD promises to sell well.
Long a Chicago area attraction, the Rhythm Rockets specialize in jumping horn-fueled R&B, the great majority of it culled from the immediate postwar era (along with a few original numbers along the same lines), with an occasional torch ballad strategically situated. Guitarist/band founder Dave Downer has his band classily decked out in suits and ties (matching the classy surroundings at Katerina’s, an intimate jazz club and restaurant), and the sax players stand behind illuminated music stands, adding to the retro ambiance. But there’s nothing dated about this outfit; sky-high energy levels and rollicking rhythms keep things live and lively.
Along with Downer’s crisp T-Bone Walker-influenced licks, played on a Epiphone hollowbody (he displays two identical gold ES-295 models onstage, complete with matching Bigsby bars), the Rhythm Rockets boast a pair of stellar tenor saxists as their primary soloists: Sam Burckhardt, who developed his authoritative sound over many years as blues piano patriarch Sunnyland Slim’s loyal sideman, and Mike Bielecki, whose animated stage persona is as entertaining as his wide-toned wails. Acoustic bassist Lou Marini and drummer Mark Fornek provide a formidable rhythm section that genuinely knows how to swing (no small feat these days), and vocalist Nicole Kestler displays just the right tone in her appealing delivery.
Following a swinging introductory instrumental, Downer jovially rolled through legendary pianist Amos Milburn’s romping “Roomin’ House Boogie,” vividly describing the wild goings on at a party that anyone would surely give their right arm to attend. Then Nicole positioned herself behind the mic to belt Etta James’ lusty “Good Rockin’ Daddy” in front of a three-horn cushion (baritone saxist Tony Kidonakis did a stellar job of sitting in for the combo’s regular bari player, sounding like he’d never missed a rehearsal in the band’s entire lifespan).
The playful lickety-split “Ain’t Nobody’s Business But My Own” was a popular duet vehicle during the early ‘50s for everyone from Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Jordan to Tennessee Ernie Ford and Kay Starr; Nicole and Mark summoned the some of the same fun repartee that those memorable if disparate pairings brought to the number. Nicole was back on her own for a seductive “Baby’s In The Mood For You,” counted off at an easy swing tempo with Downer’s concise picking winding through the horns (his guitar approach is actually closer to L.A. jump blues specialist Pee Wee Crayton than T-Bone).
Another Milburn gem, the sassy stop-time blues “Let’s Rock A While,” sported a muscular Burckhardt sax solo as several couples gravitated to the dance floor, Nicole turning up the burners on the last chorus. Marini surprised the assemblage by pulling out a bow to saw out a solo intro on Big Maybelle’s captivating “I’ve Got A Feeling,” imparting a momentary classical gravity to the proceedings before Kestler inserted an eerie wordless vocal passage and then the rest of the band kicked in on an infectious rhumba groove.
This crew digs deep into jump blues history for hidden gems. A bouncy revival of Little Esther’s joyous “T’ain’t Whatcha Say, It’s Whatcha Do” was a delight, Mark seconding Nicole vocally on the chorus and Kidonakis and Downer contributing hot solos. Then it was time to bring down the rhythmic pace and give those so inclined the opportunity for a slow dance. Instead of reaching for a warhorse such as “At Last,” Kestler wrapped her honeyed pipes around a lesser known Etta James ballad along the same sumptuous lines, the Eddie Bo-penned “My Dearest Darling.” The strategy worked; one could barely squeeze onto that little dance floor.
Staying on the obscure side of Etta’s songbook, the Rockets sailed into the lively “Baby Baby Every Night,” the band providing a rowdy vocal chorus behind Kestler and Kidonakis inserting another jabbing baritone sax ride. No shrinking violet, Nicole admitted she “hated this song when I first heard it” before tearing into Ruth Brown’s 1952 R&B chart-topper “Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean,” doing the rocker up proud as the horn section swayed rhythmically. Bielecki blew up a storm during his solo, and Downer slipped a “Rock Around The Clock” quote into his dexterous ride.
The tempo ramped up to the boiling point during the flagwaving instrumental finale, Chuz Alfred’s “Rockin’ Boy.” Fornek counted it off with a rumbling drum fanfare before the saxes engaged in some of their wildest wailing of the evening.
The second set, comprised of more familiar material, was no less satisfying. The Rhythm Rockets displayed their versatility by opening with two Duke Ellington masterworks, “Take The ‘A’ Train” and “Blues In Orbit,” and a soulful rendition by Mark Fornek on “Just A Little Lovin’” an Eddy Arnold country classic rendered in similar fashion to the way Ray Charles transformed it. Kidonakis switched over to piano to sing a splendid rendition of Brother Ray’s barrelhouse romp “Mess Around,” exhibiting excellent boogie chops on the 88s.
The combo seamlessly segued from a rollicking redo of the Ravens/Treniers romp “Rock Me All Night Long” to Ethel Waters’ mournful ballad “Bread And Gravy” without breaking stride (Kestler sounded entirely at home at both ends of the stylistic spectrum). There was a back-to-back Dinah Washington segue from a saucy “Mean And Evil Blues” to the resolute “I Don’t Hurt Anymore” (another tune with country origins, this one introduced by Hank Snow).
Kestler and Fornek work well together as a duo, bouncing off one another as they navigated the perky rhythm line of Dinah Washington and Brook Benton’s “A Rockin’ Good Way (To Mess Around And Fall In Love).” After a cool and sensuous “Send For Me” taken at a more languid pace than Nat King Cole’s ’57 hit version, the evening climaxed with a torrid original, “Born Jumpin’ The Blues.”
This fun-loving crew sounds like it was indeed born jumpin’ those blues.
--Bill Dahl- journalist/music historian