By STEVE SEYMOUR
Reverend Raven and the Chain Smokin' Altar Boys know how to put on an electrifying blues show.
The Milwaukee combo proved it in spades on June 12 during an appearance at Hereford & Hops Brew Pub and Steak House in Escanaba.
Following an announcement that "evening services will begin shortly," the band entertained a standing room only crowd with all proceeds from the benefit concert going to Northwoods Airlifeline. The Iron Mountain -based organization is dedicated to providing free transportation to seriously ill residents with medical appointments outside the Upper Peninsula.
Lead guitarist Raven led his fellow bluesmen, including harpist Madison Slim, bassist P. T. Pedersen and drummer Robert Sellars through three sets of blues standards and original material, grabbing and holding the audience's attention all evening.
Mark "Madison Slim" Koenig and Raven, who picked up his "Reverend" nickname while in the Navy, played off each other's instrumental skills, producing an extravaganza of Chicago-style blues.
Raven's reputation in the U. P. has been growing with every appearance. While touring the midwest blues circuit, Reverend Raven has played Escanaba and Gladstone on numerous occasions. The veteran musicians also made a strong showing at the Marquette Blues Fest in 2006.
Although Raven now calls Milwaukee home, he was actually born and raised on Chicago's south side. He started playing guitar at age 14, believing it was a great way to meet girls. Various rock bands later, Raven saw the colorful and influential Freddie King in the early 1970s and became hooked on the blues.
By 1976, however, Raven joined the Navy and gave up the guitar. Still, he frequented blues clubs around the world and while on leave in his hometown of Chicago. When Raven was stationed in the Windy City for a time, his friend Maria Martine Olek persuaded him to buy an electric guitar and resume his musical interests.
Raven practiced his blues licks for two years before taking the stage at a club in Oshkosh, Wis. That led to weekend gigs with the No Trim Blues Band while he was still in the service. As his confidence grew, Raven decided to quit the Navy and try the blues as a full-time job.
The Reverend met Madison Slim in Milwaukee when the harmonica master was in the Jimmy Rogers band. The Chain Smokin' Altar Boys came together in 1996, with Slim on mouth organ. If Slim was on tour, Cadillac Pete Rahn substituted on harmonica during Raven's gigs.
Reverend Raven's first compact disc, "Slow Burn," was issued in 1998. The CD contained tracks by blues giants Howlin' Wolf and Memphis Slim as well as original songs like "Bee Hive Baby," Raven's tribute to Slim Harpo. Raven has two other CD's in his catalog, "Big Bee" and "Live at Blues on Grand," which features Madison Slim. (You'd think everybody in blues was named Slim!)
The band spotlighted material from the live disc during their recent Escanaba performance, including the terrific "I'm Your Honeyboy" and "Loving You," both Raven compositions. The latter song provided an opportunity for Slim to push his harmonica demonstration into overdrive.
Slim also revved it up during two tracks written by Milwaukee harmonica legend Jim Liban, "You Ain't No Friend of Mine" and "I Don't Want to Know." True to his "chain-smokin'" status, a cigarette occasionally dangled from Slim's lips.
Of course, Raven was in fine form, too. He walked through the crowd, letting fans see his guitar playing up close, something he learned from Freddie King many years ago.
Sporting his trademark shades and white shoes, Raven topped off one such stroll by standing on a chair, not missing a single note of his guitar solo. The "congregation" roared its approval. It was no surprise to Raven. The chair routine has long been part of his act.
Drummer Sellars laid down a steady beat and sang a couple of songs, while Pedersen's bass anchored the performances with a rhythmic groove. Both veteran musicians have played with many blues greats during their careers.
All that experience translated into a red hot blues show here last week. It's easy to see why the Reverend won the Wisconsin Music Industry award for best blues band in 1999, 2000, 2004, 2005 and the People's Choice Award in 2006. Through the years they've shared the stage with B. B. King, Koko Taylor, Elvin Bishop, Magic Slim (yet another Slim!), Lonnie Brooks and many others.
What more proof do you need that Reverend Raven and the Chain Smokin' Altar Boys know how to "preach" the blues? When you get the chance, see them for yourself.