Title: The Chicago Way
Artist: Toronzo Cannon
Formats: CD, Digital
Release date: February 26, 2016
Fresh off of an appearance at a private party for the Democratic National Committee held at Philadelphia’s World Cafe Live, Chicago blues guitarist Toronzo Cannon has been busy representing his hometown. Since his last album, John the Conquer Root, he’s jumped over to Chicago’s other famed blues label, Alligator Records, which released his latest project. Fittingly titled The Chicago Way, the album features 11 self-penned songs that reflect Cannon’s life in the Windy City, using “timeless stories of common experiences in uncommon ways.”
The opening track, “The Pain Around Me,” is full of the pathos of growing up in a dystopian urban environment near the Robert Taylor Homes on the South Side of Chicago. Following a blistering guitar intro, Cannon sings: “Six kids on a corner up to no damn good, that’s six broken homes struggling in my neighborhood. You’ve got liquor stores everywhere on my side of town, I don’t want my kids to go outside ‘cause the thugs are hangin’ around.” Apologizing for painting such a grim portrait of inner city life, he sings in the chorus, “Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to sing this song about the pain around me, but this is what I see, what I see.”
In the more traditional songs “Bad Contract” and “Walk It Off,” Cannon sings the blues about getting the short end of the stick when relationships go sour, with the latter song featuring some especially fine guitar solos. The following track, “Fine Seasoned Women,” opens with a swinging jazz intro before settling into a steady groove powered by Brother John Kattke on the Hammond B3 and a fine, tight horn section—superbly arranged by Kattke—that features Doug Corcoran on trumpet, Steve Eisen on tenor sax, and Robert Collazo on bari sax. This is definitely one of the best tracks on the album, especially when Cannon punches in the guitar solos, fitting perfectly into the groove. Also adding to the mix are Larry Williams on bass and Melvin “Pookie Stix” Carlisle on drums.
Another highlight on the album is “Chickens Comin’ Home to Roost,” featuring some of Cannon’s best guitar work and concluding with an extended blues-rock solo that goes out blazing in an inferno of psychedelic guitar riffs. The heat continues with “Strength to Survive,” with Cannon digging deep into his soul on the vocals, then following up with the melancholy slow burner, “When Will You Tell Him About Me?” On the emotional closing track, “I Am,” about the multiple temptations and the choices one makes, Cannon is joined by singer Melon “Honeydew” Lewis and they bring down the house with a gospel fueled blues-rock masterpiece.
The Chicago Way offers contemporary, complex songs that are above and beyond standard blues fare, convincingly delivered by Toronzo Cannon with soulful vocals and searing blues-rock guitar virtuosity. This might well be the best blues album of 2016, and serves as proof that Cannon is poised to take over the crown as Chicago’s leading blues guitarist.
Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss