Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Robert Allen Jr. Band awes fans

Guitarist Robert Allen Jr. strolls through the crowd
during a Jan. 22 concert at the Terrace Bay Inn
sponsored by Blues for a Cause.


Milwaukee's acclaimed Robert Allen Jr. Band commanded the attention of blues fans during an appearance at the Terrace Bay Inn in Gladstone on Jan. 22.

The show was part of the Winter Blues series sponsored by Wendy Pepin's Blues for a Cause.

All profits from the event go to the spay/neuter/adoption fund for pets at the Delta County Animal Shelter, Pepin said.

Hundreds of fans from around the Upper Peninsula packed the venue.

The combo comprised Robert Allen Jr. (vocals, lead guitar), Dave Braun (drums), Guy Fiorentino (electric bass) and special guest "Cadillac Pete" Rahn (harmonica, vocals).

Keeping the dance floor filled most of the evening, the bluesmen tore through three dozen songs.

With his Gibson Epiphone ES-335 guitar named "Blondie," Allen captured the audience from the beginning, with Rahn's harmonica work adding an authentic blues feeling to the band's repertoire.

Braun and Fiorentino's propulsive rhythm provided a supportive background for the songs which included mostly blues standards, a few originals and a number of rock classics.

The program opened with "Sweet Home Chicago," composed and first performed by Robert Johnson. Countless bands have performed the early bluesman's masterpiece.

Making a strong presence with his black hat and sunglasses, Allen and his cohorts put their own mark on the song, serving notice they were going to boogie all night.

Rahn took over vocal duties for "Baby Scratch My Back," another blues gem, written by the late Slim Harpo. Harpo, a talented singer, harmonica player and guitarist, clearly influenced Rahn's style.

The band added some rhythm and blues to the mix with Wilson Pickett's "Mustang Sally" and "Hound Dog." Although Elvis Presley had a gigantic pop hit with "Hound Dog" in 1956, the song was actually a No. 1 R&B smash for Big Mama Thornton three years before. Composed by the songwriting team of Leiber & Stoller, "Hound Dog" ended the band's first set.

During the second set, Allen paired "Shake Your Money Maker" with "Who Do You Love" to great effect.

Rahn demonstrated his considerable harmonica skills on the first number, an uptempo song recorded by Elmore James in one of his last recording sessions.

A sharp burst of drums from Braun started Bo Diddley's "Who Do You Love."

"Shake Your Money Maker" has been recorded by Fleetwood Mac, George Thorogood and the Black Crowes, among other blues and rock acts. "Who Do You Love" made the lower reaches of the pop chart when released by the Lansing-area garage band the Woolies in 1967.

Both blues standards were included on "Three of a Kind Beats Everything" a compact disc the Allen trio released in 2007. That album was recorded live at Mustang Shelly's Roadhouse on March 3 of that year.

The blues shuffle "Baby What You Want Me to Do," also slotted well into the band's program. Both Allen's guitar and Rahn's mouth organ reflected the passion the players felt for the original, composed and recorded by Jimmy Reed in 1959.

Rahn paid tribute to the Paul Butterfield Blues Band by singing and playing harmonica on "Born in Chicago."

Allen took up the torch with some fierce guitar work on Stevie Ray Vaughan's "Pride and Joy" to the delight of the audience. Vaughan, lead guitarist with Double Trouble, died in a helicopter crash after a concert at Wisconsin's Alpine Valley on Aug. 27, 1990.

Allen followed with a dynamite take on Willie Dixon's "She's Dangerous," about the troubles a shapely girlfriend can bring. Louis Jordan's "Let The Good Times Roll" followed.

"Big Boss Man," another number recorded by Jimmy Reed, featuring some committed vocals from Allen, ended the second set.

Third set highlights included a wild version of the Jerry Lee Lewis classic "Whole Lot Of Shakin' Going On," and an intriguing version of "Roadhouse Blues" in which Allen seemed to channel the spirit of Jim Morrison, lead singer for the Doors.

The two rock selections were followed by Johnny "Guitar" Watson's "Gangster of Love" and "So Long," the closing track on Allen's "Burn It Up" CD from 2001.

That Allen is a striking virtuoso on the electric six-string impressed the crowd, but shouldn't have come as a surprise.

Born into a family of musicians, Allen was attracted to the guitar at young age. He got his first guitar at 14 and has been playing ever since. By his late teens, Allen was touring nationally with blues bands. He traveled with iconic Chicago bluesman Sam Lay in 1997 and discovered Jimmy Rogers. Allen also traveled to Mississippi and met blues legends like James Cotton, Buddy Guy and Robert Jr. Lockwood.

Allen has played many notable shows, but one of the most memorable was opening for Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band during an event in 2008 which topped off Harley Davidson's 105th anniversary celebration in Milwaukee.

Rahn, meanwhile, has been playing professionally for more than 20 years. He earned his nickname from fellow musicians who recognized his harmonica playing as top of the line, just like the Cadillac automobile. The bluesman has recorded with Reverend Raven and the Chain Smoking Altar Boys and played a number of northern Michigan gigs with Raven.

Rahn's resume also includes touring and recording with Bryan Lee, a Wisconsin native and fixture on the blues scene in New Orleans.

Rahn has twice been honored by the Wisconsin Area Music Industry with a WAMI for best harmonica instrumentalist.

Drummer Dave Braun has toured Europe with Scott Finch & the Blues-O-Delics and recorded five compact discs with the Mosleys. Braun has a Grammy Award nomination to his credit.

Local blues fans may remember Braun's 2006 appearance at a tribute concert held in memory of Jim "Smiley" Lewis. Braun and Lewis were friends.

Band member Guy Fiorentini was given a WAMI in 2010 as Bassist of the Year. He has also played bass with Alex Wilson and Little Jimmy.

Allen's old group, known as the Zoot Suit Boogie Band, earned a WAMI in 2001 as Wisconsin's Best Blues Band.

While all those accolades are deserved, it's great shows like the one they gave last weekend that earn the Robert Allen Jr. Band their enviable reputation.

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