I am coming to the end of my Chicago trip with very few regrets. I have been tired in the past few days, which I believe is my liver trying to tell me to get off of the freeway and cruise the side streets for a day or two. This isn’t the Fast and the Furious, after all.
Before I go into the wide blue western yonder, over the Rockies and over the Plains and into the Mediterranean climes of the northern west coast, I will tell you about Vance “Guitar” Kelly. The south side guitarist, who plays in the same Checkerboard Lounge that Muddy Waters played in so many years ago, is a legend. A local legend, but a legend just the same. And some of the things he’s legendary for are almost—and I say ALMOST—the most unnerving things I saw this week.
I’ll set it up for you. Thursday night Jess Fe. Invites us down to the Checkerboard Lounge, on Chicago’s south side. Hosts Nate and Marta have been there before, and have been telling me about this lunacy for weeks. It’s near IIT where some of these people went to college. But I haven’t been there. We drive out of the hipster neighborhoods and out of the yuppified places into neighborhoods that look like the worst of the Bronx and Brooklyn went to war and the scrawled all over their homes when they were finished.
It’s dark and the streets are empty. We pass Comiskey Park. We pass empty lots, and nice houses next to empty lots. We approach the Checkerboard, and I’d swear we were in a different city. A man with a flash light and perhaps some teeth—I couldn’t see for sure—directs us to park on the corner. Where we were going to park. But it’s okay, the man’s working for his money.
Inside, it looks like Frank’s Lounge for you New Yorker/ Brooklynites out there. Wood paneling. The 3rd grade party atmosphere you would have had in 1980. Long tables wrapped in some imitation formica. Small stage, black man with straightened gray hair pulled back into a little rabbit-ponytail, wearing a gray suit with some shimmer on it is announcing the band and cracking jokes, like a real host.
There are older men in this place. And some large women. I mean large. I mean, if this one woman’s tit popped out I might have tripped on it. There are some college-looking boys in the corner, a little uncomfortable looking but no one’s bothering them.
A crew of kids come in, who’ve been going “since high school,” they say, from nearby Hyde Park. And they all come to see Vance “Guitar” Kelly.
Vance is not the prettiest man, but what he lacks in pretty he makes up in slick. He’s five foot five, perhaps, wide brimmed hat, Jackson guitar, gap in the middle of his teeth. I should have a picture or two of him. He plays with some skill, he’s pretty impressive, especially during the medley of soul/ Motown songs from Al Green to the Temptations to the Commodores.
But he’s best known for the “Candy Licker” song. I have no idea whether the song is an original or not, but he sure makes it his own. Just like his version of “she’ll be coming ‘round the mountain when she *pause to slowly lick out towards nose, then retract tongue about four inches* COMES.” So this Candy Licker song is an opportunity for crowd involvement.
In this case, after he’s done telling you (while looking at Marta and Jess) how he can lick it, and tales about how he learned how to lick the candy—and if you can’t figure out what the candy is by now, please go to your favorite anatomy book and get to know it better—Vance finds the time to call up some of the men from the audience to show off their technique.
What follows is a string of tongue licking and exuberance I haven’t seen since my last naked Kiss concert.
Oh, and then he takes a young lady from the crowd and places him in front of her. He’s short, she’s tall, you can’t see him behind her ass. Her hands go over his, he plays; but it looks like she’s playing, and reaching back, and playing some more, and reaching back—and you KNOW he’s having some fun with that.
So, that’s the Checkerboard.
More events to come!