Greetings From Greaseland

Living Blues Magazine – by Justin O’Brien

Rockin’ Johnny Burgin came to Chicago to play blues, and he dedicated years to learning the craft playing behind Tail Dragger and others. He taught himself the styles of Eddie Taylor, Magic Sam, Earl Hooker and lesser-known guitarists like Hip Linkchain and Willie James Lyons. Burgin recorded with Billy Boy Arnold, Jimmy Burns, Tail Dragger and Little Arthur Duncan and issued a couple of his own Cds for Delmark before abruptly disappearing from the scene for nearly a decade. A few years ago he re-emerged and has made up for lost time, playing all over the Midwest, touring Europe and issuing Now’s the Time, Grim Reaper and his latest, Greaseland.

He has become a shoot-from-the-hip guitar slinger who knows his material very well. And he likes to play loose, stretch it out, push the limits, get a little wild. To that end, he headed to California, where, backed by like-minded guitarist Kid Andersen (The Nightcats) and rising harmonica star Aki Kumar, with a rhythm section of June Core (Charlie Musselwhite, Mark Hummel, Little Charlie and the Nightcats) and Vance Ehlers (Mark Hummel, Junior Watson, Little Charlie), he found Greaseland Studios was a place he could comfortably play some unhinged Chicago-style blues.

Perhaps the best examples of this are his confident and stunning takes on Otis Rush’s Homework and Hip Linkchain’s Cold Chills. Listening to the practiced chaos of Johnny’s leads is like watching an acid-addled hippie teetering at the edge of a cliff, but pirouetting to safety in the nick of time. And everyone falls in perfectly behind him. On Empty Bed Blues, Johnny neatly channels Eddie Taylor, then Earl Hooker in his wah-wah phase (and beyond), while Kid Andersen plays uncredited organ, with fine hand wah harp from Kumar, who contributes plenty of quality playing throughout the set.

T-Bone’s loping, minor key She’s a Hit becomes movie noir meets 1950s sci-fi as Johnny and Kid trade licks, with Kumar’s chromatic harp enveloping all like a sea fog.

Burgin also plays harp on here. He is mistakenly credited as harpist on tracks seven and ten, whereas aural evidence suggests it’s actually eight and eleven—his original Tribute to Big John Wrencher and Jimmy Reed’s Tell the World I Do.

Robert Lockwood’s Western Horizon, with Kumar’s lush, full-throated harmonica accompaniment, becomes a vehicle for some Jekyll and Hyde guitar work from Johnny, who wavers between Lockwood’s traditional style and his own beyond-the-horizon explication of the melody.

There are three Burgin originals, among them the harmonically interesting two-chord rumba Havana Rock, plus a well-conceived and slickly executed instrumental arrangement of House of the Rising Sun on which Burgin again faithfully establishes the familiar tune before artfully deconstructing it.

Burgin’s guitar playing will keep transcriptionists busy for a long while. This is a thrilling and thoroughly fun ride for the Chicago blues cognoscenti who are not faint of heart.