Chicago Country Legends
uthenticity. Huh. Good God, y’all. What is it good for? Absolutely nothing. The Sundowners made their living as the house band for various Chicago bars for over thirty years. They were, in some respects, a country band (all three men were transplanted Southerners), but their reach was long enough that this posthumous collection includes everything from classics like a jovial ‘Clemintine’ and a more sober ‘Tom Dooley’ to covers of the Beatles (‘Something’) and Bobby Darin (‘Things’).
And although some of these tracks (all recorded live, all but one dating from 1960-71) were audience requests, the Sundowners are clearly having a blast here. Playing bars was their livelihood but also something they loved, and all three were more than adequately talented for the job; lead guitarist Don Walls stands out, but the humbler rhythm section of guitarist Bob Boyd and bassist Curt Delaney keeps things moving along at a nice clip.
But these songs aren’t great because the Sundowners ‘paid their dues’, and unlike a lot of bands in similar position, it’s not really possible to reposition them in hindsight so a later movement can claim them for their own (the way punk, for example, has gone around and decided a lot of older musicians were ‘punk’, whether they knew it or not). The Sundowners played straight ahead country, and between their instrumental prowess and beautiful harmonic singing (showed here to best effect on the opening ‘Cimarron’) they also made what would have been compelling pop music if it had been released at the time. On that front, ‘Cimarron’, ‘Tears’, ‘Don’t Tell Me Your Troubles’ and their cover of ‘Something’ are the cream of a healthy crop.
Normally the issue with compilations like these are length and variety, as 24 tracks is usually too much especially for a band as focused as the Sundowners. But Chicago Country Legends avoids both, the former by way of brevity (the whole thing is 66 minutes, but feels shorter) and the latter due to their instrumental approach which doesn’t vary in physical object, but does in sound, from the upbeat ‘What Where When’ to a mournful reading of ‘Here We Go Again’. The songs sound similar on the surface, but dig a little and you unearth a rich emotional palette.
Able to tackle suicide (‘Last Letter’), poverty (‘Streets Of Chicago’) and death (‘Miller’s Cave’) with the same aplomb and verve with which they tackled quasi-novelties like ‘Little Green Valley’ and ‘Little Pedro’—The Sundowners attained a legacy which has outlasted them. You can’t see them playing in Chicago anymore (Delaney and Boyd died in 1997 and 1999 respectively), but this is the next best thing.
Reviewed by: Ian Mathers
Reviewed on: 2004-01-22