Bluebird Sessions show brings out musical ghosts of Leland

Guest vocalist Nora O’Connor serenades the audience, with Scott Tipping, bassist Matt Thompson, guitarist Dave Nelson, and keyboardist Scott Stevenson.


Last weekend, I was lucky enough to enjoy what could be called a musical seance, a tribute to blues artists long gone but whose notes reverberate through guitar strings, amplifiers and voices of present day.

Sunday evening was the record release show for the Leland Bluebird Sessions, a tribute album to the recordings that took place at the top of what was then called the Leland Hotel in downtown Aurora in 1937 and 1938. Those recordings, by artists like Tampa Red, Washboard Sam, John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williamson, Big Bill Broonzy, Sweet Peas Spivey, Merline Johnson, Robert Lee McCoy (Robert Nighthawk), and others, are a rare find in their original form on scratchy 78rpm records. But they come to life on the Bluebird Sessions record, and last Sunday they were featured loud and proud.

The tribute record was the brainchild of Steve Warrenfetlz, the owner of Kiss the Sky Records and his own record label, Sky Club Records, and local musician Scott Tipping took the ball and ran with it, past the goalposts and out the tunnel (sorry for the unnecessary sports analogies – I’m missing football). The record includes appearances by Robbie Fulks, Nora O’Connor, the Steepwater Band, Chicago Farmer, and many more.

Scott Tipping and special guest vocalist Mick Ducker.

Also included on the record are vocalists Mick Ducker and Mae Koen. Last summer, I was fortunate enough to witness a set by Leland, the band Tipping put together to showcase these songs live. While I appreciated the entire performance of Leland, these two vocalists stood out by far in my mind. It was like seeing Solomon Burke and Aretha Franklin right in my backyard – in fact, Koen has sang backup for Aretha, so that’s perfect. Watching them again on Sunday reignited the spark I felt last summer. They are absolute stars.

Sunday’s record release event was the Big Show. The real deal. This was Tipping’s baby, and you could tell he wanted to bring his best and the other musicians he brought on board were aiming for the same lofty goal.

There were firey solos by Tipping and guest guitarists Dave Herrero and Pete Galanis, lovely National guitar work from Dave Nelson, fun banjo by Fulks, masterful mouth harp by Devil In A Woodpile’s Rick Sherry and so much more, and it was all held together by the rock solid rhythm section of drummer Chuck “Dr. Charles” Lacy and bassist Matt Thompson. The vocalists were just top notch, too – Fulks and Nora O’Connor, whom I’ve seen many times at Chicago’s Hideout venue, once again blended their voices perfectly, and Cody Diekhoff aka Chicago Farmer sang mournfully about selling his soul to the devil. And of course, Mick and Mae both blew the crowd away.

Finally, in a truly goosebumps moment, Mary Lou O’Brien absolutely killed singing solo with accompaniment by Tipping on her version of “Pallet On The Floor.”

All in all, a lovely night for listening to and playing live music, and awakening some ghosts.

The Bluebird Sessions record is available at Kiss the Sky in Batavia, Mile Long Records in Wheaton, and online here.


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