photo: courtesy of Rosa's
Even though Kingston Mines
is the oldest blues joint in Chicago, it's always had a Disneyland feel to me. Part of the "blues alley," with B.L.U.E.S.
across the street, it seems like a corporate formula: mix equal parts barbecue ribs, rickety wood and sawdust with some scratchy-throated old guys shredding on even older guitars. To be sure, some of the greatest blues musicians swing their sweet tone on the moneyed Lincoln Park strip of Halsted, but they do so for a crowd of rich white tourists.
So a couple weeks ago, still in search of an authentic blues experience, my friend and I headed over for a night of drinks and jams at Rosa's Lounge on the Northwest Side. A glance at the schedule was promising. Rosa's plays host to group of local legends, including harmonica virtuoso Sugar Blue and guitarists Chico Banks and Melvin Taylor.
As we walked in through doors, a man wearing a slightly cocked natty Fedora took our $12 cover. It turns out this was owner Tony Mangiullo. As a young drummer in Italy, Manguillo met Junior Wells, who extended an invitation to visit Chicago. The 19-year-old took him up on the offer, and after years of watching shows at legendary but now defunct blues club Theresa's and slogging his way as a pizza cook, his mother Rosa visited. Soon he convinced her to open a blues joint alongside him.
As we sidle up to the bar, Melvin Taylor and the Slack Band are in full swing cranking on some Stevie Ray Vaughn. An older woman (who turns out to be momma Rosa) with hive of bone-white hair wearing a black blouse with the sequined word "chic" on it slings up my bourbon and coke at warp speed. She could be your grandmother, but you also get the feeling from her stern eye that she could drink you under the table.
Like any good blues club, Rosa's is dark, dingy and smoky. Its individual personality takes the form of a huge Persian rug, pictures of legends like John Lee Hooker and carnations in mini water carafes on the table. The back bar's kitschy bric-a-brac includes the googly-eyed ceramic cats one finds in Chinatown and a vintage 1970s Lady Kenmore blender from Sears.
Yes, there are some rich white tourists, but on this night there's also a mix of African-Americans, Latinos, students and professionals, both young and old. It seems Rosa's is also a favorite of major world leaders. (There's a huge poster of velvet revolutionary and former Czech president Vaclav Havel's visit to Rosa's hanging on the wall).
The Slack band is anything but. The drummer is blind, but plays the kick drum with serious vision, and the rhythm guitarist, a big tattooed white dude, tricks out some fast fills. Melvin Taylor is the spiritual love child of legendary Jazz guitarist Wes Montgomery and Jimi Hendrix, and on this night, he's already ambled through some classic jazz ditties on his red flattop and shredded through Voodoo Chile on his gold-top Stratocaster.
The music is so good it gets the staunchest anti-dancers out on the floor. There seems to be an unusual number of white man's overbites, Chubby Checker twists and an odd rooster-style Mick Jagger-like preening in the crowd.
Pretty soon, Melvin has worked his way through the medley, and the final notes of a distortion-filled, wah wah-infused riff on the Hendrix version of the National Anthem hangs in the air. Five hours have flown by, the lights are flipped on, and it's time to go home.
The low rumble of the L, the sweet corn perfume of masa at the Maxwell market and the gritty play of the White Sox are part of my soul, but after tonight, Rosa's might just take the largest piece of my Chicago heart.
Guidebook rating: A true blues experience. This joint has character and soul for tourists and locals alike.
Stats: Open 8 p.m.-2 a.m. Tuesday-Friday; 8 p.m.-3 a.m. Saturday; music starts at 9:30 p.m. on weeknights and at 10 p.m. on Saturday; closed Sunday and Monday. Cover ranges from $5-$12. Your chances of catching a random cab after a show are pretty slim in this neighborhood, so be sure to call one before you leave.
Untrapping Tourism is a monthly feature that pits Centerstage's native and nearly native writers against the city's most stereotypical tourist traps.