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LIVE REVIEW -- Holle Thee Maxwell & The Original Chicago Blues All-Stars
GLT blues radio


September, 2016

Motor Row Brewing, Chicago

Original Chicago Blues All-Stars

By Robin Zimmerman

Photos: Howard Greenblatt

From the once-dominant auto dealerships to those palatial Prairie Avenue homes, the area around Michigan Avenue and Cermak Road is historically significant for several reasons.

This side of town is also rich in musical history with Chess Studio being just a stone’s throw away. Here at 2120 S. Michigan Avenue, Chicago blues came into being with Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter and others creating the signature sound that would put Chi-Town on the musical map.

Now, folks have another reason to make the trek down to this South Loop musical mecca as the recently opened Motor Row Brewing features live blues in their third floor taproom. What’s more, the current Thursday night lineup is legendary in its own right.

Original Chicago Blues All-Stars
L to R: Hank Ford, John Watkins, Freddie Dixon, Ronnie Hicks & Dr. Jimmy Tillman on drums

Motor Row has booked Holle Thee Maxwell and the Original Chicago Blues All-Stars to perform every Thursday through October. True to its name, this band is basically a “who’s who” of the blues. There’s Willie’s Dixon’s son, Freddie, on bass with drummer Dr. Jimmy Tillman keeping the beat behind him. Keyboard player Ronnie Hicks, guitarist John Watkins and Hank Ford on sax round out this band of musical veterans. Motor Row also features the band, minus Holle, on Monday nights. Google any one of them and you will find some impressive musical resumes!

John Watkins
John Watkins

Like a good blues song, this band starts out somewhat slowly and builds to a crescendo. Don’t hold these guys to the 7 p.m. start time and it’s all good.  For a $10 cover, attendees get a free drink ticket and a dynamic show from beginning to end.

Hank Ford on sax
Hank Ford

It’s a congenial atmosphere at Motor Row, too. On a recent Thursday night, two ladies were celebrating a birthday and offering Jewel chicken and Beggar’s pizza to other patrons. Blues singer Deitra Farr stopped in before jetting off to do a show in Romania. Renowned blues bass player Bob Stroger, who continues to cut a fine figure at 85 years of age, later joined her at the table.

Freddie Dixon
Freddie Dixon

As the room continued to fill up, the Original Chicago Blues All-Stars kicked off their set with a spirited rendition of the old standard, “I Ain’t Superstitious.” Freddie Dixon said a few words and noted that the band was embarking on their 40th Anniversary tour. He then had Tillman take center stage.

Doctor Jimmy Tillman
Dr. Jimmy Tillman

The “Doctor of Love” talked of sharing his talents to keep the blues alive for future generations. He discussed his outreach efforts at correctional centers and then sang a heart wrenching number called “Nobody Cares About Me.” This tune was written by a 13-year boy serving a life sentence.

After noting that the blues is about “good times and bad,” the mood lifted considerably on the next number. That’s when Tillman launched into a tale about some mischief that he and Freddie got into down in Memphis. This led to a light-hearted little ditty about falling for another man’s woman.

All this led up to the grand entrance of the lady of the hour: Ms. Holle Thee Maxwell. Clad in a flashy red ensemble, and a massive blonde wig, it was extremely obvious that this entertainer is no shrinking violet. And, with a career that spans seven decades, she certainly knows how to work a room.

Holle Thee Maxwell

Following her dramatic entrance, “Thee Original Black Blonde Bombshell” sat down at the keyboard for a chill-inducing rendition or Otis Redding’s “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long.” Maxwell started her career singing opera at the tender age of 5 and this was demonstrated by the wide range of notes she hit.

During both sets, Maxwell covered a broad range of musical styles and emotions, Right after the Otis Redding number, she showed her sultrier side with “Meet Me With Your Black Drawers On.” Maxwell found her perfect foil with audience member, Michael Murphy, who good-naturedly took part in the bawdy banter.

Maxwell said, “When I perform, I have to see and watch audience reactions, and my so-called victims must be fun-loving, enjoying my show and acceptable to be in my spotlight…. and Michael was perfectly qualified.”

After mingling with the crowd during the break, Maxwell returned for a second set that included an homage to the music of Ike and Tina Turner. Maxwell famously toured with Ike Turner after his split from Tina. She said he treated her with respect and it was a positive experience.

Holle Thee Maxwell on keys

Her versions of both “I Can’t Stand the Rain” and “Proud Mary” showed Turner’s influence. She said, “At rehearsals, I become Ike Turner in a dress.” This “musical perfectionist” insists on correct timing and precision. She added that, “my back-up musicians must be energetic, have charisma and enjoy themselves.”

She certainly seems to be in sync with the Original Chicago Blues All-Stars as are they are embarking on a tour of Denmark starting on November 2nd — immediately after their run at Motor Row is done. 

Maxwell credited publicist Lynn Orman Weiss with choreographing both the collaboration with the Original Chicago Blues All-Stars as well as the upcoming Denmark tour.

Shifting back to the group’s Thursday night residence, the taproom at Motor Row is perfect for a performance of this nature. It has subdued lighting, sensational sight lines and a variety of craft brews for every taste.

With summer sadly winding down, one can still gear up for cool brews, live music and a convivial vibe. With this Thursday night lineup, Motor Row offers a vehicle for blues lovers loaded with all the entertainment options.

Motor Row Brewing is located at 2337 S. Michigan Avenue in Chicago.


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