“Listen to the words!” bluesman Toronzo Cannon urged Sunday, the last night of Music Haven’s season.
Distilled from his own experience or overheard on the Chicago bus he drives four days a week, Cannon’s lyrics punched up hard-won insights with street-poet wordplay. But in both his headlining set and a powerful opener from local hero Matt Mirabile, the sonic force of the music carried its own mighty message of deep grooves and soaring guitars.
Cannon promised only two percent of what he’d sing would be lies, but it all felt true. In his opening “Strength to Survive,” he decried how “real life is getting in the way of my dreams,” then shared credit for his strength with his “Mrs. From Mississippi.”
Some songs sketched skirmishes in the battle of the sexes, checking out cheating from all sides. “Midlife Crisis” slammed, then forgave, straying men while “When Will You Tell Him About Me” withheld that mercy. “Bad Contract” was a divorce horror movie and “Been Better to You” and “Walk It Off” cast bitter blame.
Songs simmered, slashed and burned, but often with a wry laugh sandwiched inside.
Keyboardist Luca Chiellini took the first solo in most songs while bassist Dave Forte and drummer Melvin “Pookie Stix” Carlisle built a beefy backbeat; firm, like a palm holding ever-shifting mercury.
Playing left-handed, like Hendrix, Cannon lifted the show into guitar heaven late. Noting the anniversary of Woodstock, he spiced his own “John the Conqueror Root” with flashy Hendrix-isms, crouching bent-kneed, miming the shape of feedback blasts, sliding the strings across the mic stand, even grafting melodic bits of “Voodoo Child” and “Third Stone from the Sun” into this bristling shuffle.
In generous encores, Cannon (like several other Music Haven acts this summer), played his way off the stage down into the crowd surging around him and filling the front dance floor.
He welded the Kinks’ “You Really Got Me” and Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water” inside an uptempo southside shuffle, like surprise upstart plants “volunteering” in a garden, before extolling women of his own age (50) in “Fine Seasoned Woman.”
Before the encores, Cannon noted the late hour: “Y’all have to work tomorrow!” as he checked his watch in mock alarm. “I’m calling in sick!” shouted a fan in reply. More like, calling in well, and happy.
Opener Matt Mirabile and his band set the table with a brisk mid-tempo shuffle, then singer Jill Hughes joined in to serve a sizzling soul banquet spanning roadhouse blues to uptown R&B. Fearless, forceful, commanding, Hughes paid tribute to Aretha in a defiant one-two of “Chain of Fools,” then Etta James in “I’d Rather Go Blind.” Alongside Hughes, whether he was comping or soloing, Mirabile played better than Joe Bonamassa in tone and taste. He etched clean, resonant lines that echoed Freddy King — as Cannon also did, before blasting off into Hendrix licks — with impressive imagination and grit.