Illinois Blues Shack comes to life

• Ronnie Baker Brooks brings down the house in an opening that almost didn’t happen

City inspectors had approved the opening of The Illinois Blues Shack, housed in the former Top Hat Restaurant in Loves Park, but red flagged the opening in a last-minute inspection. Loves Park Mayor Darryl Lindberg interceded, allowing the opening to go forward. Thank goodness he did, because the opening night was one that couldn’t be missed.

Ronnie Baker Brooks, son of blues legend Lonnie Brooks, took the stage at 9 p.m. Brooks and his band, featuring Daryl Coutts (keyboard), Maurice “Moe” Taylor (percussion), and Carlton Armstrong (bass), captivated the audience from the start, encouraging those in attendance to clap and sing along. Brooks mixed his own music with classic tunes from Muddy Waters and other blues legends. Some favorites included “Mustang Sally,” “It Takes A Smart Man To Play Dumb” and “Stuck On Stupid.”

Brooks’ musical influences include more contemporary artists such as Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Albert Collins, and older influences like Muddy Waters, Sam “Lightning” Hopkins, and Lonnie Brooks. Brooks melded these generations into one, and created his own unique style and sound, which was masterfully displayed April 16 at the Blues Shack.

At times, the show took on the spiritual air of a Baptist church, with people yelling to the preacher in affirmation. The environment was healthy, and patrons were respectful of one another. At one point, Brooks plugged in a cordless transmitter and walked through the house playing to the fans. Brooks, a consummate showman, had the crowd whipped into a blues/rock frenzy.

During the audience-inclusive show, Brooks found Bob Levis of Ernie & the Po’Boys, which opened for Brooks. Brooks handed Levis his guitar without missing a beat. Levis continued playing for a few minutes with Brooks sitting beside him, his eyes closed in seeming ecstasy. As Brooks took the guitar back, The Blues Shack erupted with applause, and Brooks made his way back to the stage to wind up the number.

At the end of the night, the whole crowd made its way to the stage to dance and sing with Brooks and the band. The show was truly fantastic, and I can find nothing negative to say about the experience.

According to Brooks’ biography, blues legends, who frequently visited the Brooks household, told Ronnie, “It’s up to you … keep these blues alive.” As was evident during his April 16 performance, Brooks has accomplished the task by blending the blues with rock to touch a new generation of fans.

The Blues Shack, 5335 N. Second St., Loves Park, will be closed approximately one week while a new kitchen vent hood is installed. Terence Williams, co-owner of The Blues Shack and grandson of the legendary Bukka White, said a myriad of issues were first approved and then rejected at the last minute by city inspectors, which almost kept opening night from happening.

Lindberg said the kitchen was not ready for use, and the city granted the Blues Shack the option of catering in food, which the Blues Shack accepted. Meantime, the Blues Shack has been granted an occupancy permit.

“Hopefully, by letting them do this, they can build up some funds to get everything taken care of,” Lindberg said.

For upcoming events and info on The Illinois Blues Shack, call 815-877-6263. The Blues Shack is also home to the Bukka T. White Memorial Country Blues Museum, which includes original art, photography and musical pieces.

Brandon Reid, assistant editor, contributed to this article.

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