A memorable post-game encounter

The Globe and Mail

CHICAGO -- One of the great fringe benefits of this job is that every once in a while you get to meet two blues legends; an Italian from Milan who opened a blues club in Chicago with his mother; and a Russian blues cello player who calls Montreal home, all on the same night.

We begin our tale after the first game of the Stanley Cup final when the Chicago Blackhawks won a wonky game over the Philadelphia Flyers on Saturday night. Once the work was done, your agent headed north of the United Centre with Tom Harrington of the CBC in tow, the only fellow journalist who could be persuaded to forego the free drinks at the NHL's hospitality suite.

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Our destination was Rosa's Lounge, where Michael Coleman and the Backbreakers were playing. Coleman was voted one of the top 50 bluesmen in the world by Guitar World magazine. He served an apprenticeship with Muddy Waters and James Cotton and is known for his own brand of blues, which includes a healthy dose of funk.

But even if he wasn't playing that night, Rosa's is always a good stop because it lives up to its motto as the friendliest blues club in Chicago. It's owned by Tony Manguillo, who grew up in Italy dreaming of running a blues club in Chicago. So he did in 1985, naming it after his mother Rosa and bringing her along to help run the place.

Mama Rosa, as she is known, is there every night and looks exactly like the stereotype of a little grey-haired Italian lady in a black dress, as long as you include playing pool and rocking to the blues in the stereotype. When we arrived, she was in mid-game with one of the regulars.

The blues wax and wane in popularity over the years and it's been on the wane recently, which can work to your advantage. It often means the crowds are sparse so you can get a lot closer to your heroes than if you worship Eminem or some such.

When we arrived there were about a dozen people in the small club, so there was no trouble getting a couple of seats at the bar about 10 feet from the stage. Coleman was in fine form and so were the Backbreakers.

Then, after a couple of sets, Coleman said he wanted to bring up two guys who asked to play. He said something about one of them being Russian. From the back of the club came a middle-aged fellow who said he needed to borrow Coleman's guitar. Over on the other side of the room, a guy sitting by himself leaned over, pulled a cello out from under the table and walked to the stage.

Harrington and I looked at each other. A Russian with a cello. In a blues club. And someone we thought was the doorman was planning to sing. This was shaping up as one of the all-time trainwrecks.

Then the middle-aged guy started playing and singing old-fashioned Chicago blues. He was nothing short of terrific. And cello guy was a revelation. He plucked and bowed and made that oversized fiddle howl.

After several numbers, Coleman got back on stage and said he'd like to thank Lurrie Bell and Redbone Benji. You could have knocked me over with a feather. Lurrie Bell is part of one of the great blues families and has been one of the top performers on the Chicago scene for almost 40 years, give or take a few because of substance abuse. His father was Carey Bell, considered one of the best harp players of all time.

My bad for not recognizing him.

After Lurrie went back down to the other end of the bar, a guy sitting at the table next to us got up and pulled out a guitar. Coleman introduced him only as Country Boy. He turned out to be a rapper who played a mean guitar. It was the first time I came close to enjoying the genre, thanks to his blazing guitar solos between raps. Redbone Benji stayed on stage and stayed right with Country Boy.

When the band took a break they all headed for our end of the bar and turned out to be a convivial group.

Coleman was quite interested in the fact we had been at the Blackhawks game. I was quite interested in what playing with James Cotton was like. Then Coleman dropped a scoop on us: Cotton called him recently and asked him to rejoin his band. Coleman said he will be starting the job in June in Toronto when Cotton plays the Sound Academy on the 30th.

Then we had a chat with Redbone Benji. He really is Russian. Turns out that is his cello-playing name. His regular moniker is Vladimir and his day job is as a trademark lawyer in Montreal. He is in Chicago for a few weeks hitting all the blues clubs and asking for a chance to play. He handed out cards to Coleman, Bell, Harrington and me.

If you ever need a Russian blues cello player who can also untangle any trademark issues you may have, drop me an e-mail.