Well, now! Day 3 of our coverage of the bands playing the Robert Johnson 100th Birthday Bash at the Abbey Pub, here in beautiful Chicago! Sponsored by our very selves, along with Tony from both Hellhound Trail Booking and The Black Oil Brothers. The whole damn nights gonna be a stomping party, dontcha know. Y'all miss it yr own peril! Hell, we've got an Amtrak station round these parts. Git yr tix now!
Today's all about Illinois John Fever, straight outta Iowa City, Iowa. They call themselves "...canoe draggin', banjo pickin' music", and that's just about right, consarnit! Oh, and they've got this description too..."Mix unequal parts hill country boogie (Fred McDowell, Bukka White, R.L. Burnside), early 70's RnR (Stones, Zep, VU), mixed with the in-yr-face variety of American punk (DK, Circle Jerks, Big Black) then splash with vampy craziness inspired by Willie McTell and Eazy-E.".
Well, hell yeah! They've been one of favorite bands since seeing them play The Deep Blues Festival a couple years ago (in which they played an iconic moment...see below), and we're super keen on finally gettin' 'em down Chicago-way.
We're re-posting a previous interview with Illinois John Fever, but with some bonus new material. The band was kind enough to add a few extra questions to the interview, and plenty of updates! So read on!
A BRCM Interview with Illinois John Fever
BRCM: What is yr current incarnation? How has yr sound changed over the last couple of years?
Illinois John Fever: Sean Genell on acoustic guitar and vocals, Donnie Knight on lap-slide dobro, Bobber Hall on drums. We were taking the same approach two years ago with a different dobro player. Then we uplugged the amps and ditched the drum-kit to explore the pre-Blues origins of our style, stripping it back to raw and rural. We didn't know why at the time but there were a lot of strong indicators that this move was essential to our connecting with the origins of Blues and Americana music. This exercise helped us recognize the importance of subtlety and dynamics, two elements that are greatly diminished when playing at louder volumes, and by engaging the past we hope to manifest that original spirit in the music we play today.
BRCM: Is this yr first Chicago show? If so, what hopes and dreams will be fulfilled by playing here?
IJF: Hells yes and we're mighty proud. Chicago is our real hometown: Sean grew up on the South Side where he waded into the mire of mainstream Chicago Blues looking for its roots. But that old thing had long faded with Maxwell Street, and with the old clubs down south Michigan Avenue and Cottage Grove. Frustrated by the gaudy pantomime of commercial Blues he kept searching, looking back into the source of this music and what its influences were, getting back to it's origins. And that was the true beginning of Illinois John Fever. So on a very personal level we feel like we're bringing the sound back to where it all broke out into the open. Putting something back in the wishing well, as it were. And that said, out of our hopes and dreams we hope to establish a permanent relationship with that long-standing tradition of great music the city of Chicago has brought to the world.
BRCM: At the Deep Blues Festival, you were part of an iconic moment, providing guitar backing and rhythmic flourishes to an impromptu performance by T-Model Ford. Tell us about that moment. How did it come to pass?
IJF: It's easier bringing the music to the people than it is bringing the people out to the music. We also recognize the roots of this music come from casual settings—from the field, the porch, the afternoon picnic, from the tobacco barn, the living room, the street, etc.—and the importance of experiencing the music that way removes the imaginary line between performers and observers, encouraging the spontaneity of the moment for everybody. So we work hard staying versatile, playing everywhere between the club and the couch, and we came to Deep Blues ready to play as often as we could, wherever we were. That said, the first night was winding down and we'd grabbed our gear to busk in front of the Cabooze, but the manager put us in the beer garden instead. As for T-Model coming to check us out and then asking for a guitar, we were just doing our thing in the right place at the right time, and we're grateful he took us along for the ride. And there's a whole line of people to thank for setting that all up, starting with Chris Johnson. In a larger context, we all experience the inevitability of tradition—that the torches will pass onto those willing to bear them—and that this is really what Chris set into motion by creating the Deep Blues Festival, and in bring all of us together. That man is making history-in-action, you just watch.
BRCM: You're based out of Iowa City. Whence comes the name "Illinois" John Fever. Who is John Fever? Are you feeling ill?
IJF: For the record, none of us goes by John Fever. He’s an archetype, a spirit conjured up. His real name is John McKinney, and we make space for him the way some folks set a place for Elijah, which is an appropriate comparison. As for the ILLINOIS, Lute Tucker earned that growing up in Chicago. But we use it in the tradition of setting bluesmen apart—not through personal nicknames but as regionally distinguished remarks in recording catalogs. So in his full suit, ILLINOIS JOHN FEVER reminds us that we aren’t authors of anything, that we are just transmitters of certain ideas, mere observers of the music.
BRCM: Where do you draw inspiration? Who are your influences?
IJF: Scenes of carnage and fiery revolt are a good place to start. Severed fingers marked with voters’ ink. We celebrate just about anyone righteously standing up in the face of violence. We embrace the totality of the world despite being infinite souls trapped in limited bodies. We listen to a lot of Fred McDowell, Booker White, and Willie McTell, but we’ll listen to everything. This very moment, it’s the Pussy River Bawlers. We like John Jackson and stuff out of Virginia, and Georgia. “Monologue on Accidents” is a vibrant recording of John Lomax grilling Willie McTell on whether he’s ever recorded any “complaining songs.” At Parchman Farm, Lomax’s son Alan recorded D.W. ’Bama Stuart singing “I’m Going Home.” We’re struck by these. But we also love Funkadelic, Royal Trux, Violent Femmes, Big Black, and any afrofunk. Lute Tucker suggests everybody read anything by Chester Himes. Our favorite movie is REPO MAN, and we think sushi is delicious.
BRCM: You're all relatively young, at least so far as Blues musicians go. Some would argue that you have to have lived a "full" life, whatever that means, to really understand the Blues. Do you feel that this is true, or do you find a universal in the form that can appeal along a broad spectrum of ages and experience?
IJF: Understanding the blues is about understanding human emotion. And it’s not so much having experienced one thing or another, but how you respond to the world as it presents itself. With the blues, this becomes personal expression. There’s other details—technical proficiency, adept lyrics, bad-ass street cred. But as with most matters of survival, the ability to respond to the on-going situation is most important. Playing live therefore becomes a living metaphor, and we can appreciate that as well as anybody.
BRCM: What kind of audience do you hope to draw? What will it take to bring your brand of Blues to the masses?
IJF: Hippies with trust funds. As for the masses, David Geffen would have to put the $15-million on that horse.
BRCM: What is the band's drink of choice?
IJF: In order of volumes consumed: water, coffee, PBR, any proper whiskey.
BRCM: How many roads must a man walk down? And which roads should he take? Is there really a crossroads, or is it just a fork in the road?
IJF: There are as many crossroads as you are able to recognize. Our only problem on the road is our inability to recognize the multiplicity of the crossroads.
BRCM: You're playing the Robert Johnson 100th Birthday Bash at the Abbey Pub. What does Robert Johnson mean to y'all, if anything?
IJF: His music is a driving force in the evolution of the Chicago Blues. He is an icon both self-made and commercially speaking, and in that regard he's the most enduring figurehead of the Blues. We strongly identify with the many influences--musically, historically, and spiritually--that Johnson drew upon. So truly it is an honor to be invited to perform at such an auspicious event.
BRCM: What's next for Illinois John Fever? Did I hear a rumor that there's a new record in the works? Is there a tour planned? Can we get ya'll back to Chicago?
IJF: For those fans who are hard of hearing, you-all will be happy to hear we're back to writing new material in the amplified acoustic guitars/drums format, and that's going blessedly well. No plans to record right now but we always know when it's time. That said, we've also let go of finishing the 100%-acoustic recording we'd been working on. It was probably going to be called "1927 AD," or something like that, and someday we'll have a hell of a retrospective album to share if anybody ever wants to hear it. Meanwhile, two of us are working extra-hard to hit bottom while the third is still mired in the taxi business. None of that can be bad for the band. Upward, onward. And hells yah: We can't wait to get back to Chicago. It's home sweet home.
After all that, wouldn't you like to hear some tunes? Well, we've got something special for y'all. We've got one of our favorite songs by Illinois John Fever, followed by two exclusive tracks, from their upcoming album. Oh, yes, indeed.
Please support yr local, independent floor stompers and string dusters!