Billy Branch delivers a 'Blues Shock'

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Billy Branch

Chicago Blues singer and harmonica player Billy Branch plays a tremolo chromatic harmonica. (Alex Garcia / Chicago Tribune / February 10, 2014)

"He's a very deep and thoughtful person, and I think he needed to find a way to express these deeper feelings and thoughts, outside of the 12 bars," adds Enrico. "I just see this CD as Billy Branch unleashed and unfettered and just totally revealed."

Certainly the album contains some of Branch's strongest work, no two songs sounding quite alike. "Sons of Blues," which opens the recording, surges forward with Branch's urgent vocals, poet Sterling Plumpp's evocative lyrics and Bill McFarland's punchy, jazz-tinged writing for horns. "Baby Let Me Butter Your Corn" comes closer to standard blues structure but bristles with rhythmic vigor and sensual innuendo. And "Song for My Mother," a purely instrumental piece that Branch penned with Minoru Maruyama, provides a sublime, nearly serene close to an album full of surprises.

The title of that final tune clearly references Horace Silver's jazz classic "Song for My Father" and represents a key statement for Branch, who lost both of his parents during the 15 years since "Satisfy Me."

"It's a profound loss that you never actually completely recover from," says Branch, and this, too, may help explain the depth of his new work.

"There was a very spiritual element to all of this," adds Enrico. "At the completion of (recording) this CD, when those girls laid down the vocal tracks, we were in tears in the control booth. … It was a very deep and profound experience. …

"For me, all these years, I've seen the things he has written – this man can write prose and stories that are so far away from the (blues) genre that he's linked with, that I just prayed for that to find expression in his music.

"And it happened."

Nevertheless, life as a blues musician doesn't get any easier in a music world that largely either ignores the genre or considers it anachronistic. Branch concedes that "there are times when we go through periods when we're not working as much as I'd like to. In this city, we're blessed that we do have more venues than probably anyplace to be able to play blues, but you're always faced with the challenge of getting compensated well enough.

"In many places, if you don't play for what they're offering, they can always get someone else."

He hopes that "Blues Shock" will help give him a little more leverage and win him increasing engagements at festivals around the world. Regardless of what happens, though, Branch seems to have packed a lifetime of meaning into this music.

Moreover, the Chicago bluesman who was considered a new voice in the blues in the 1970s now finds himself a kind emerging eminence grise of the art form, an inheritor of traditions he acquired playing alongside Willie Dixon, Junior Wells, Sunnyland Slim, Homesick James, Big Walter Horton and other past masters.

"Now they're calling me an elder statesman," says Branch, with a laugh. "What the hell happened in the twinkling of an eye?

"Where did the time go?"

It went into the music, and you can hear as much in "Blues Shock."

Billy Branch plays at 10:30 p.m. Friday at Buddy Guy's Legends, 700 S. Wabash Ave.; $20; 312-427-1190 or buddyguy.com. Also 10 p.m. Saturday at Rosa's Lounge, 3420 W. Armitage Ave.; $15; 773-342-0452 or rosaslounge.com.

To read more from Howard Reich, go to chicagotribune.com/reich

hreich@tribune.com

Twitter @howardreich

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