What I’ve Been Listening To: Toronzo Cannon/The Chicago Way

Fourth album was the bus-driving Chicago blues man’s recording breakthrough

This is starting to feel a bit like Groundhog Day. Lately, I find myself spotting a listening recommendation from my music streaming service, and before too long blogging about it. But I just can’t help it, when music grabs me, I get excited!😀

Should I have heard of Toronzo Cannon before? Probably yes, based on the recognition this contemporary Chicago blues guitarist singer/songwriter has received. But just because I’m a music fan who likes to write about his passion doesn’t mean I’m a know-it-all expert – in fact, I’m far from that; and if anything, this only becomes more clear the deeper I get into music blogging. And that’s quite okay with me, since I like exploring stuff I don’t know.

According to the bio on his website, when Cannon isn’t touring, he’s driving a Chicago Transit Authority bus during the day and playing the blues at night, “using every vacation day and day off and working four ten-hour shifts a week.” I know it sounds a bit cliche, but where other than in America do you hear about such stories?

I suppose if Cannon continues to work as a bus driver, this means one of two things or possibly both: Driving the bus helps him write his lyrics. Notes Cannon’s bio: His songwriting is inspired by his deep, homegrown Chicago roots, his years observing the public while working as a city bus driver on the West Side, and his own battles and triumphs. And/or Cannon still depends on his additional income as a bus driver, since he isn’t making enough money with his music. If it’s the latter, maybe Cannon isn’t that well known after all beyond Chicago blues circles, which would make me feel a bit better that I had not heard of him before. Regardless, he sure as heck plays a groovy blues guitar and has a great soulful voice.

Toronzo Cannon

Cannon is a native Chicagoan. He was born there on February 14, 1968 and grew up on the South Side of the city. He bought his first guitar as a 22-year-old and apparently was a quick study. Interestingly, he focused on reggae in the beginning, but soon found the blues was his real calling.  “It was dormant in me,” he says in his bio. “But when I started playing the blues, I found my voice and the blues came pouring out.” The bio also reveals he was influenced by the likes of Buddy Guy, Albert Collins, Hound Dog Taylor, B.B. King, Albert King, Freddie King, Al Green, Jimi Hendrix, J.B. Hutto, Lil’ Ed and others – surely a list of fine artists!

The Chicago Way, which appeared in 2016, is Cannon’s breakthrough album and the fourth album in his recording career that started in 2007. It’s his first release on Alligator and was co-produced by Cannon and the independent Chicago blues label’s president Bruce Iglauer. Cannon first had gained broader attention when he performed as one of the headliners at the Chicago Blues Festival in June 2015.

BTW, at the time The Chicago Way appeared, Cannon was 48 years old, in other words not exactly a young kid. Once again, this proves that age doesn’t have to be a hurdle when you got great talent like Cannon, though being younger in the brutal music business probably isn’t a disadvantage either! The record earned Cannon a nomination for a Blues Music Award in 2017 by the Blues Foundation as Album of the Year. While Taj Mahal and Keb’ Mo’ ended up winning that award for their outstanding collaboration record TajMo, which I previously reviewed here, being nominated with these guys in the first place says a lot about Cannon. Time to get to some music!

The album opens with a great funky tune called The Pain Around Me. Like all of the other 10 tracks, the tune was written by Cannon. Except for one track, I couldn’t find any clips on YouTube of the studio recordings, so I’m relying on live footage. But in my opinion, that’s not a disadvantage – if there’s one music genre that’s made to be experienced live, it’s the blues!

Another great song is Walk It Off. It’s got some of that cool Muddy Waters Hoochie Coochie Man and Mannish Boy vibe. I also dig the classic blues lyrics. Here’s an excerpt: She didn’t mean it, that’s what she said/He was an old friend and she lost her head/I know my woman is nice and kind/but now we don’t know if the baby is his or mine/I got to walk it off/I got to walk it off/The feeling’s so strong I might do something wrong/So I’m gonna just walk it off. I just love the story-telling!

Fine Seasoned Woman has a cool driving jazzy groove. I also dig the Hammond-like organ sound.

Midlife Crisis is another great tune featuring some classic blues lyrics: Woke up this morning feeling kind of strange/Some of you men might feel the same/Looked in the mirror the other day/My chest hair was turning gray/My old friends are far too old/Don’t wanna hang with them no more/Went to the doctor say, “what’s wrong with me?”/He looked in my eyes, “There’s one thing I see”/You having a midlife crisis/You having a midlife crisis, Lord/Don’t know what to do because you ain’t 22/You having a midlife crisis.

The last song I’d like to call out is When Will You Tell Him About Me? I think Cannon’s soulful voice comes out particularly nice out on this slow blues. Here’s a clip of the studio version for a change.

So what did some of the music reviews have to say about the album? Usually, I don’t care much about the critics, but if they agree with me, hey, I don’t mind!

“Deep, contemporary Chicago blues…razor-sharp guitar and compelling, forceful singing” – The Chicago Tribune

“One of Chicago’s new greats”  — The Chicago Sun-Times

“Progressive as he is rootsy…Slow, simmering riffs and smoldering licks” – Chicago Reader

“Among the cream of the next generation of Chicago blues musicians” — Blues & Rhythm

Yep, I can support all of the above!

Looking at Cannon’s remaining 2018 schedule, his next gigs are in Poland and the Czech Republic in mid-October, followed by U.S. shows in San Diego (Oct 28), Cleveland (Nov 9) and Auburn Hills, Mich. (Nov 10 & 11). If any of these places would be closer to Central New Jersey, I’d seriously consider seeing him. But I suppose there’s always hope for 2019!

Sources: Wikipedia, Toronzo Cannon website, YouTube