A Willy Porter Christmas

House of Blues - Chicago

December 21, 1997

First Appeared in The Music Box, February 1998, Volume 5, #2

Written by John Metzger


Willy Porter performed at the House of Blues in Chicago on December 21, for his second annual holiday visit. Taking the stage to a tribal drum beat, the band surprisingly launched into the mellow Boab Tree, gliding on the thick bass line of Steve Kleiber. It was a beautiful rendition and gave the four-piece band a chance to loosen up.

The current line-up touring with Porter includes Kleiber, John Calarco on drums (though this was his last show with Porter), and Matt "Deep Space" Meixner on keyboards. The new format gives Porter plenty of room to make his guitar sing, and he seemed much more comfortable floating between rhythm and lead guitar, allowing his incredible talent to take center stage.

Porter tore through a variety of styles, from the bluegrass ending to his hit song Rita to the rhythmic funk of Fear to the blues-based Jesus on the Grille. The new format also gave him a chance to play electric guitar on So Hard and the jazzy Sowelu, as well as mandolin for an abbreviated version of The Little Drummer Boy and One More Time. The latter songs also featured the sweet vocals of special guest Cathy Braaten.

At times, the group conjured up images of Bob Dylan and The Band as well as Little Feat. As the concert progressed, they increasingly began to jam. Throughout performances during the past year, the band has really begun to gel as many musical conversations took place between Porter and each of his bandmates. Breathe was wrapped in a solid, trance-like meditational groove, while Sowalo explored a jazzy space, not unlike those visited by the Grateful Dead.

But the highlight of the evening was Porter's touching solo performance of The Trees Have Soul. Porter dedicated the song to Michael Hedges who was a big influence on Porter. Hedges had a unique guitar style, which Porter has masterfully learned and applied to The Trees Have Soul. The recorded version of this song is incredible, but to witness Porter perform it will make your jaw drop in awe of his talent. Porter concluded the song by carrying it into a brief reworking of the Peanuts Theme.

The show concluded with a fully jammed rendition of Who Can Budge It Blues. Porter has typically concluded his concerts with an a cappella reading of this song, but this time out, the band remained on stage and sent us home dancing with a melody that drew heavily from Expressway (to Your Heart) and Bill Withers' Use Me Up.

Mysteries of Life, from Bloomington, Indiana, opened the show with an enjoyable 50-minute set that perfectly complimented Porter's music. Their best number was It's All Downhill from Here, which had a reggae-like beat.

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Copyright 1998 The Music Box