Billy Branch
Savannah Bar & Grille
January 10

Some thirty years ago, the late Junior Wells told a California teenage harmonica player named Billy Branch that the youngster just didn't have what it takes.

Well, he found it. Branch, who moved to Chicago in 1969 to attend college and be near his heroes Wells, James Cotton, Walter Horton, etc., refused to be dissuaded. He was taken under the wing of starmaker Willie Dixon and was fronting his own band, the Sons of Blues, a decade after arriving in Chitown.

Branch and a new incarnation of Sons of Blues tore up the Savannah Bar & Grille on Sunday. Despite an audience kept small by the bitter cold, Branch and his compadres went full-tilt for two sets, totaling more than three hours, and delivered the kind of funky (for the most part) harmonica blues that thrilled Clevelanders back in September when Branch virtually stole the show for the week of tributes to Robert Johnson.

The first set was strong enough. Highlights included the humorous "Where's My Money?" with bass man Nick Charles singing falsetto backup, "The Blues Seem to Follow Me Around," the often-covered standard "My Babe," and Slim Harpo's 1966 swamp-blues hit "Scratch My Back."

But it was the second set that turned the blues fans who were dedicated enough to fight the weather and get to the Savannah on their ears. Guitarist Giles Corey ripped through Sam and Dave's "Hold On, I'm Coming," and Charles tackled Wells's signature song "Messing With the Kid" with appropriate fury. Branch sang his autobiographical "New Kid on the Block," which chronicled his days hanging around the legendary Chicago club Theresa's Lounge, and the anthemic "Son of the Blues."

Branch, Corey, and drummer Mose Rutues Jr. then opened the stage to local blues musicians Colin Dussault, Austin Charanghat, and Olivia Sci, respectively. They and Charles knocked out Sonny Boy Williamson's "Bring It on Home," a tune from Dussault's latest disc, "Good Boogie and Barbecue," as well as Buddy Miles's "Them Changes." Branch retook the stage for Williamson's "Help Me," but eventually yielded the instrumental break to visiting Pittsburgh harmonica player Wil E. Tri for the big finish. Things wrapped up with an extended version of James Brown's "Sex Machine."

Branch isn't an innovator but a standard-bearer. He will faithfully reproduce the classic Chicago harmonica blues sounds for the new generation of aficionados. Considering how much energy and muscle there is in that brand of blues, his mission is a noble one.

--Steve Byrne

Nation of Fear
Grog Shop
January 11

The Grog Shop stage, which could barely fit former Marilyn Manson member Brian Tutunick and four other band members, was decorated in as much early Goth as space would allow. Metal structures stretched to the ceiling, two torches burned, and a smoke machine pumped out fog. The scene lost a bit of its netherworld luster when Tutunick arrived in casual Lucifer dress (red smoking jacket). My trusty thesaurus provided "Old Gooseberry" as another surname for the devil, and the description fits. With his head shaved and eyebrows trimmed, Tutunick's Beelzebub more resembled Jon Lovitz than Satan himself. Lucky for him, Nation of Fear's music wasn't such a joke.

Though Nation of Fear is linked to Mr. Manson, its music is more in the vein of Marilyn's mentor Trent Reznor. Using Nine Inch Nails-ish samples, industrial-lite sounds, and destructive beats, Nation of Fear blasted through a ten-song-plus set with ardent fervor.

Songs such as "Stye," "The Business," and "Shackled" keyed the aggressive attack, combining vaporous keyboard sounds and harsh guitar licks with occasional scratching from the DJ. The style meshes many genres (metal, rap, industrial, techno, punk) into a wall of sound that could fit comfortably on the next Family Values tour.

Getting a full grasp of Tutunick's vocals was not so easy. Often muddy and distorted (both may have been by design), the flamboyant singer did a decent job conveying the evil and gloom that seems to be obligatory with this style of music.

The only contrived moment of the night came during "America Burns." Guess what Tutunick draped over his body? Interestingly, he didn't throw the flag into the burning barrel of fire. It appears the cost of torching the Stars and Stripes every show may be a bit too expensive. Just wait until Nation of Fear has a budget.

--John Benson

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