Composer: Tadd Russo
Piece: Burning Riverside Blues (2009)


Burning Riverside Blues was written for the FiveOne new music ensemble of Cleveland, Ohio. The work is dedicated in memory of Robert Lockwood, Jr., and dedicated to the musicians of Cleveland, Ohio.

When I was just discovering roots music, I read about a man named Robert Lockwood who was considered the last living link to blues legend Robert Johnson. It was only a few years later that I realized that Lockwood was a local, regularly-gigging musician. I enjoyed spending Wednesday nights on St. Claire and West 9th street at a club just up the hill from the flats at Wilbert's (which has since moved). Lockwood played there every Wednesday while it was open. He later played at Fat Fish Blues and many other venues throughout the city and across the country.

Lockwood was the "adopted step-son" of Johnson as the elder Robert was in a relationship with the boy's mother. Lockwood learned to play guitar at the feet of the Mississippi Delta legend. Lockwood became well-known as the host of the King Biscuit Time show in Helena, Arkansas where he was born. He moved up to Chicago, as did many of his contemporaries, and recorded as a popular session man on Chess Records. When blues waned in fashion, Lockwood moved to Cleveland to raise a family with his wife, but continued to play until his death in 2006.

When visiting family and friends after college, I learned of another amazing Cleveland blues guitarist by friend and former Cleveland Public Theatre collaborator, Carl Skorepa. Since then I've made a point of spending Thursday night visits at Hoopples at Columbus and Franklin watching, listening, and avoiding the eye contact of Glenn Schwartz and the Schwartz brothers. Glenn is an amazing musician in his own right. A former-member of The James Gang (pre-Joe Walsh) and Pacific Gas & Electric. His playing is psychedelic in a freight-train-going-off-the-rails sort of way–Filled with power, struggle, and a hint of insanity. Glenn's brother, Gene was also Robert Lockwood, Jr.'s bassist when I used to hear him play.

Burning Riverside Blues explores the various facets of the music I remember from listening to Lockwood and Schwartz live as well as Robert Johnson recordings. Starting with a Delta-style intro refracted through changing meters. The work moves into more conventional Chicago-style blues overlaid with more pointilistic, but distant interjections by the woodwinds and strings. When Glenn's spirit enters, there is no telling what is going to happen. Soon after, the shouting begins in a nod to the way a Schwartz Brothers show ends. And the work comes back home with the opening motif building to a unison exhortation and a power-trio-style final ending.

Burning Riverside Blues was premiered at Cleveland Public Theatre by FiveOne in February 2009. Michael Bratt, Artistic Director

Burning Riverside Blues