Sunday, December 13, 2009

December 13: The Mighty Blue Kings, "Live From Chicago"

Artist: The Mighty Blue Kings
Album: Live From Chicago
Year: 1998
Label: TriStar

Without question, one of the most welcome surprises during the 1990's was the completely unexpected return of swing and big band music to the mainstream. Though only lasting for the better part of two years, bands like Big Bad Voodoo Daddy and Squirrel Nut Zippers were all the rage, and it appeared that music by those with real talent was making a comeback. However, as with anything great, it did not last, and before the decade was out, the style had faded back to the niche audiences, and the mainstream returned to what was mostly mindless drivel. Yet many of the "retro swing" bands continued making their music, and this era produced some of the greatest records in the overall history of the genre of swing. Though they did not find the mainstream success like Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, or even The Mighty Mighty Bosstones (yes, they are more SKA than swing), there is little argument that can be made against Chicago's Mighty Blue Kings being one of the finest bands of this second coming of swing. With far more energy, as well as a more conscious influence of jazz in their music, The Mighty Blue Kings released a handful of albums, and continued to blow away audiences with their high-octane live performances throughout "the oughts." It is these live performances where The Mighty Blue Kings truly set themselves apart from their peers, and this magic is perfectly captured on the groups' absolutely brilliant 1998 release, Live From Chicago.

Bringing together a number of musical styles is one of the key elements that makes the music of The Mighty Blue Kings so enjoyable. Where a majority of the bands of the retro-swing genre took a single formula, and simply used different chord progressions and tempos, The Mighty Blue Kings spin entirely different moods to nearly every song. Instead of making every song have a "lounge" feel like most of their peers, The Mighty Blue Kings mix in everything from deep blues to meandering jazz to wildly fun call-and-response tunes, and there is seemingly nothing that these musicians can't incorporate into the swing style with amazing results. Furthermore, it is this ability to spin so many different styles that has enabled the group to stay relevant as the years have gone by, as not being pigeon-holed into a single sound gave them a leg up when the initial "boom" faded. Live From Chicago captures everything that makes The Mighty Blue Kings so fantastic, as both the group and the crowd go all out for the entire run of the record, and the presence of a fair amount of crowd noise gives the album a far more intimate feel. Though a majority of live albums eliminate crowd noise as much as possible, The Mighty Blue Kings clearly understand that it is the crowd that creates the atmosphere, and that the crowd plays as vital an element in the music as any of the band members on stage.

Another key to the superb sound found on Live From Chicago is the ideal balance in musical sound that The Mighty Blue Kings achieve. Not looking to overpower the audience with a massive band, or any wild musical progressions, the group presents simple, yet fantastic musical lines, and each member of the band performs perfectly. In the two years following their studio debut, the group slightly altered their lineup, and the group featured on Live In Chicago proves to be just as talented and explosive as the original musicians in the band. Led by the powerful, bright sounds of saxophonists Jerry "Big J" DeVivo and John Sandfort, the songs punch and swing as brilliantly as any swing sound ever. Proving that one could make the guitar far more than just a rhythmic instrument in the swing setting, Gareth Best is absolutely on fire throughout all of Live From Chicago. From powerful chord progressions to some of the finest leads and solos ever recorded, it is Best's performance that truly sets The Mighty Blue Kings far above their contemporaries. The rhythm section of drummer Bob Carter and new bassist Clark Summers are as fantastic as the original pairing, and Carter's playing is far beyond that of his peers, as it is his efforts that gives each song its distinctive sound and mood. Rounding out the band, and giving them a tone and sound that was missing from their studio debut is organist Chris Foreman. This is where the jazzier mood is most evident, and his presence in the band takes their sound and stage energy to an entirely new level. Moving as a single force, the sound that The Mighty Blue Kings present throughout Live From Chicago is without question one of the most intoxicating displays to come out of any genre in the 1990's.

The band members play brilliantly on every song on Live From Chicago, yet as good as they are, the true allure behind The Mighty Blue Kings is the writing and stage presence of one of the finest frontmen of his generation, Ross Bon. With a voice that is as perfect in the 90's as it would have been during the initial boom of swing, Bon's voice brings with it an authenticity and spirit that is largely absent from a majority of his peers. Making a conscious effort to not go overboard or overpower the music, Bon perfectly navigates each song, and the results are true swing bliss. Along with his fantastic voice, Live In Chicago makes it quite clear that Ross Bon can read and move a crowd like few other frontmen in history. Easily able to move the audience in any way he wants, the mood he creates is nothing short of electric. From the call-and-response of "Rag Mop" and "Green Grass Grows All Around," to the clear crowd favorite, "Meet Me In Uptown," one can only sit in envy of those lucky fans who were in attendance that evening. There are so many styles and sounds presented on Live From Chicago, that one cannot help but sit in awe as The Mighty Blue Kings are able to put their own touch on everything from the Hendrix classic, "Manic Depression" to cajun-swing of "Big Mamou." Turing every song into a dance celebration, there are few albums as enjoyable as Live From Chicago, and few frontmen as perfect as Ross Bon.

Without question one of the truly great bands to emerge from the "retro swing" explosion of the 1990's, Chicago's own Mighty Blue Kings pulled off everything perfectly, with wildly fun music and one of the most magnetic frontmen in music history. It is perhaps the fact that they DIDN'T gain the public notoriety of bands like The Cherry Poppin' Daddies and Big Bad Voodoo Daddy that The Mighty Blue Kings were able to keep their authentic, and "less poppy" sound. Taking classic songs, as well as a large amount of original material, The Mighty Blue Kings present one of the most high energy and unquestionably fun records ever released with Live From Chicago. Each of the band members performs beyond expectations, and the album proves that there are many bands that are simply not fit for studio records. This is not to say that the band's studio work is second-rate, but with the type of music they play, and the energy they bring to the music, The Mighty Blue Kings are simply a band that one must experience live to fully appreciate. The bright, powerful horns, the absolutely fantastic guitar work, and one of the finest rhythm sections ever enable The Mighty Blue Kings to play far beyond the level of their contemporaries, and Ross Bon proves to be easily one of the most dynamic entertainers that the world has ever seen. The musical power and prowess, as well as the party atmosphere created by The Mighty Blue Kings are on full display on their absolutely magnificent 1998 release, Live From Chicago.

Standout tracks: "Money's Gettin' Cheaper," "Green Grass Grows All Around," and "Little Too Late."

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