James Cotton
James Cotton

Among blues fans, it’s a refrain heard almost as often as the chorus to “Sweet Home Chicago:” few stars remain in the genre, and the most recognizable ones—i.e., B.B. King and Buddy Guy—are of advanced age. These days, fans of classic blues mostly have to content themselves with hearing musicians who once played alongside legends. Fortunately, those artists are fine, if often underappreciated, in their own right, and this Thursday a group of them will assemble at the Tivoli Theatre in Downers Grove to kick off the first night of the nationwide Blues at the Crossroads tour.

The show will find the Fabulous Thunderbirds acting as the house band, backing fellow performers James Cotton, Tinsley Ellis, Jody Williams, and Bob Margolin. It should make for some terrific music, especially if and when the performers join each other. Here’s a quick guide to these bluesmen and what to expect from them:

The Fabulous Thunderbirds The Texas blues-rock combo enjoyed a couple MTV hits—“Tough Enough” and a cover version of soul duo Sam and Dave’s “Wrap It Up”—in the 1980s (when their lineup including founding guitarist Jimmy Vaughan, brother of the late Stevie Ray Vaughan). For years Kim Wilson has been the only remaining original member, and his punchy singing and warbling harmonica show why blues icon Muddy Waters himself was an admirer.

James Cotton The 77-year-old Mississippi native began his professional career when he was just nine, warming up crowds for his mentor, Sonny Boy Williamson. He joined Waters’ band in 1954 and remained in it for 12 years before venturing out as a solo artist. Since then, his ability to wrest all manner of flurries, moans, and wails from his instrument has made him an enduring star of the blues, with a string of award-winning records, including a forthcoming new release on local label Alligator Records.

Tinsley Ellis A gruffly soulful singer and scorching guitarist, Florida (by way of Atlanta) native Ellis draws on the blues of the southwest and Memphis R&B. Now in his fourth decade as a performer with 11 records to his credit, the 55-year-old has honed his chops with his heavy performance schedule, drawing praise for his mix of soulfulness and ferocity.

Jody Williams In the 1950s, the guitarist’s fiery fret work graced a string of blues classics, including Bo Diddley’s immortal “Who Do You Love,” and Howlin’ Wolf’s “Forty Four.” By the end of the following decade, he’s left music altogether to be an engineer for Xerox, but Williams returned in the new millennium with a pair of acclaimed records that showcase his slinky mix of jazz and Latin influences.

Bob Margolin “Steady Rollin” Margolin made a name for himself as a young man backing Waters from the 1970s until his death in 1983. In Margolin’s work since then—with fellow Waters band veterans and as a solo artist—he has stayed true to classic Chicago tradition with his slashing guitar playing and urgent singing.

Blues at the Crossroads plays Jan. 31 at the Tivoli Theatre, 5021 Highland Ave, Downers Grove. For info, classiccinemas.com

Kevin McKeough is a contributing music critic to Chicago magazine.


Photograph: Paul Natkin