In the early 1980s I became infatuated with blues music. Chiefly, I fell for the mighty blues stylings of Koko Taylor, the Queen of the Blues. My initial exposure to Koko’s music was through the Saturday late-night blues radio show on WGBH, Blues After Hours, hosted by the incomparable Mai Cramer. Mai Cramer was the conduit through which I came to love blues. Marvoni and I came to know of Mai’s radio program when she contacted us to produce her promotional t-shirts sometime around 1983. We happily took this commission and in short order we were rabid listeners to Blues After Hours. I was hooked on Koko Taylor from the jump. Her brand of Chicago blues was as raw and powerful as any coming out of the Windy City by way of the Deep South. Gut-bucket blues. Her band, the Blues Machine, was crackerjack, too. Straight up mighty.
Nightstage was a club for a minute. For fewer than 10 years; it opened in 1985 and was gone for good by the close of 1993. It’s a shame, too, as it was intimate, accessible, and it hosted all sorts of established acts and up-and-comers of the period. It sat on Main Street on the edge of Central Square. If I’m not mistaken it originally opened as a blues club, but morphed—no doubt out of necessity—into a place where just about any small to mid-level act could showcase its musical acumen.
By the late ’80s, having never seen Koko Taylor live, I was on a mission to see her. Marvoni and I spent a week in Chicago in the summer of 1989. We left for home a day before Koko was to play a free concert at a local venue. We left Chitown disappointed. Our disappointment lingered only a short while, maybe a few months, as sometime in late-winter 1990 there was an announcement of an upcoming Koko Taylor show at Nightstage in early-spring. Naturally we jumped on tickets as soon as they went on sale. Nightstage was a GA venue with no assigned seating. A situation that’d work out in our favor. On the afternoon of the gig, Friday April 27, I turned up at Nightstage super early and parked myself in front of the main entrance. There I waited, first in line, for a couple of hours in order to get the best seats in the house for our inaugural Koko Taylor show. The ploy paid off as we landed the table at the front lip of the stage. The mighty blues queen would be performing, for all intents and purposes, directly to us. Well, that’s what it felt like anyway!
If you happened to have seen Koko Taylor around this time, you certainly would not have been dissatisfied. She was a powerhouse performer fronting a powerhouse band. Still in possession of every ounce of her fierce gift, she put on a two hour tour de force performance. In my recollection, I will tell you it felt like a tornado swept through that room. I wish I could tell you the set list, but I neglected to keep notes and it’s nowhere to be found on any of the set list sites, suffice it to say she sang all my favorites: I’m a Woman, Come to Mama, I’d Rather Go Blind, Let the Good Times Roll, Jump for Joy, Wang Dang Doodle. She showcased her band, letting each member shine in his own right. On stage Koko was a total pro but she also emanated immense joy, and it was clear without question she was doing the very thing she loved most: singing the blues. With that approach, she had a deft hand with her audience, instinctively sensing what we craved and delivering on it. That would be her singular brand of Chicago blues—old school, passed down to her from the big boys: Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, Howlin’ Wolf, et al, honed on the chitlin’ circuit and ridden to greater acclaim on the wave created by British blues bands in the sixties. Koko was the real deal, the undisputed Queen of the Blues. And owing to her royal stature in the blues realm, she delivered the goods in impressive and memorable style. So memorable that nearly thirty years on, the force of that performance still thrills me.
When she finished her set we made our way to the stage door and asked to meet the Queen. She graciously allowed us into her dressing room where we gushed like fools in her presence. After a brief chat she signed the back of my Kingston Mines t-shirt and we happily floated off to a nearby barbeque joint—the long-gone Jimmy Mac’s—for a post-show feast.
In the years since that Nightstage show we saw Koko Taylor and Her Blues Machine at Boarding House Park in Lowell, back in the $5.00-per-show days. On that night, in the pouring rain, Koko rocked us with another 2-hour set. Pro that she was, that rain did not deter Koko in the slightest. Nor did it bother us in the least. Koko was like the US Postal Service that night: “neither … rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night …” nor any old thing, could stop that incredible force of nature from giving it everything, “all up in here!”
Then, our love cemented, we caught Koko’s sets at the 2001 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, and the 2005 Chicago Blues Festival. We saw a final show at Boarding House Park in summer of 2006 where it felt like the passing of a torch as Koko performed a potent six-song set opening for Shemekia Copeland. And that, friends, was the cherry on top of our experiences seeing the amazing blues legend Koko Taylor live and in concert. And it all started with a powerful show at Nightstage on that hot spring night in 1990 …
Man, we were lucky, for sure. All up in here.