GLEN ELLYN – Billy Branch not only learned how to be a better harmonica player while he was touring with Chicago blues legend Willie Dixon, he also learned more about how blues music has shaped our culture.
Branch will perform with Ronnie Baker Brooks, John Primer, Jimmy Burns and Omar Coleman at 7:30 p.m. Aug. 1 at McAninch Arts Center's Lakeside Pavilion in Glen Ellyn as part of Chicago Plays the Stones, a project that celebrates the deep relationship between the world’s biggest rock band and the electric blues of Chicago. A full 50% of all profits from sales of the CD go to Generation Next, a music education and youth mentoring program under the aegis of the Chicago Blues Experience Foundation, and supporting the next generation of Chicago blues artists.
Food and beverages will be available for purchase. Outside alcohol, coolers, kegs, umbrellas, tents and skateboards are not permitted. More information is available by going to atthemac.org.
The following is an edited version of Branch's conversation with Shaw Media reporter Eric Schelkopf:
Eric Schelkopf: As far as wanting to be part of this project, Chicago Plays the Stones, what made you want to be part of it?
Billy Branch: It was produced by Larry Skoller, and I've been part of several of his other projects that he did, notably, "Chicago Blues: A Living History."
This project was a novel idea. As far as I know, I don't think anybody else has taken on such a project. It was kind of like full circle, since The Rolling Stones started out with the blues, emulating their blues musician heroes.
Schelkopf: But in turn do you think people will kind of get a history lesson and realize that The Rolling Stones – if they didn't know already – were heavily influenced by Chicago blues artists?
Branch: Yeah, you could definitely look at it from that perspective.
Schelkopf: As far as the songs that you're featured on, like "Sympathy for the Devil,"for instance, how did you try to change it up?
Branch: Again, you're always challenged when you are embarking on re-recording iconic or classic tunes associated with a famous group like The Rolling Stones. I had nothing to do with the arrangement, but my challenge was giving a suitable and hopefully dynamic interpretation of it.
While evoking the sentiment of the original, you still have to find a way to kind of make it your own.
Schelkopf: When you began touring with Willie Dixon's Chicago Blues All Stars, how old were you?
Branch: Oh, I was probably about 24 or 25 years old.
Schelkopf: What were the biggest things that you learned when you started touring with Willie Dixon?
Branch: The main things I learned from Willie was about the immense scope of the blues, and I acquired a deeper love and respect for the music. Willie was a guy who was a philosopher, as well as a great poet and writer.
He realized and was constantly preaching about the importance and significance of the blues in a historical, social and political context. I'll give you an example. Even before officially joining the band, he shared with me a letter that he sent to the FCC and every member of Congress.
This letter stated that there was a conspiracy to keep the blues off the radio. He drew a correlation between marginalizing the blues and racial discrimination.
The blues, of course, is first and foremost African-American folk music. And the culture is embedded in it. It's like the soundtrack of this African-American existence in this culture.
By exposing more people to the blues, his reasoning was that then you expose them to their history. And then when you start investigating their history, you start really realizing the many contributions and accomplishments that they have made. And that decreases your ability to discriminate against them.
And then musically I learned so much, of course. I became a much better player. I thought I was good when I joined the band, and I quickly discovered how much I did not know.
But Willie had a lot of faith in me. He just kind of nurtured me until I really got up to speed.
Eric Schelkopf writes about the arts and entertainment scene in Chicago at thetotalscene.blogspot.com. He also is an employee of Shaw Media.