The SOB’s – not a bad word, it’s the Sons Of Blues. Lead by Billy Branch, one of Chicago’s premier harmonica players of the last 30+ years, these guys are the real deal when it comes to the blues. Originally formed by Billy, guitarist Lurrie Bell (son of Carey Bell), and bassist Freddie Dixon (son of Willie Dixon), the band ushered in a new generation of blues players and styles.
Through the years, a number of members have passed through the band, including guitar virtuosos Carlos Johnson and Carl Weathersby. The current line-up features Dan Carelli on guitar, who does a great job at filling the shoes of those who came before him. Nick Charles handles bass duties, having been brought to the Windy City and given his first bass guitar by the iconic Howlin’ Wolf. Sumito “Ariyo” Ariyoshi is a classically trained pianist whose blues resume includes stints with Jimmy Rogers (Muddy’s guitarist) and Robert Jr. Lockwood (step-son of Robert Johnson). The band is anchored by long-time SOB drummer Moses Rutues, who has never missed a beat and is easily the most rock-solid drummer in the business.
Branch has played on hundreds of recordings for everyone from Koko Taylor to Taj Mahal, and put out several albums as a solo artist and with the SOBs. His most famous album is probably Harp Attack!, done with fellow Chicago harmonica masters Carey Bell, Junior Wells, and James Cotton, all of whom mentored him and guided his talents (and cut his head a few times along the way). It remains one of Alligator Records’ best sellers and one of the defining albums for the blues harp genre.
While all of the recordings are quite good, the band is at its best on stage. Most times, the SOBs perform two or three numbers to warm the crowd up, including some fine instrumental work and a couple of fun sing-alongs, and Moses handles lead vocals on the blues standard “Five Long Years.” After that, it’s “star time,” bringing up four-time Grammy Nominee Billy Branch. Sometimes he opens with a stellar reading of Little Walter’s “Juke” or “Crazy Mixed Up World,” and the Freddie King classic “Goin’ Down” really gets things moving. Other songs typically included in the set are the Robert Lockwood/Jimmy Rogers staple “That’s All Right” (there’s some historical debate as to who actually wrote the song – Muddy admitted Lockwood did), Little Walter’s “My Babe,” and a thunderous rendition of John Lee Hooker’s “Boom Boom” that outdoes the original every time. Variables range from the SOB-original “Where’s My Money?” to Harp Attack! closing number “New Kid On The Block” (which I’ve only seen performed once among at least 6 or 7 times seeing the band live). In each performance, there’s bound to be a few surprises.
On their own, each of these men is an exceptional musician. Together, they are outstanding. Their shows provide not only a history of the blues, but also offer a glimpse into what is to come. There is no way you’ll leave one of their shows disappointed; instead, you’ll be a fan, even if you’d never seen them or heard them before. If you’re a fan of the blues, or great live music in general, do yourself a favor: go see these guys. You’ll be glad you did.