The Greatest guitar players come from Chicago..
Now we're not saying they actually have to be born and raised on the South Side, where the music blaring from the bars and clubs is as tough as life. But to be the best of the best, guys like Hendrix, Stevie Ray, and some of those British cats had to find something inside that could trace back to those streets.
So what happens when someone comes along who plays with that kind of intensity, whose command of the guitar goes beyond chops to something deeper in the soul, who is so tied to his beloved instrument that he's been known to sleep with it and cover it in roses - and on top of all that, he's from Chicago too?
Here's what should happen: Everyone should stop whatever they're doing and listen to Ladell McLin, an astonishing and soulful guitarist, singer, and songwriter who plays with a conviction that's become all too rare since guitar gods walked the earth.
Every note of every track on his studio debut, Stand Out, sounds like it's been conceived and nurtured over time in McLin's heart, then moved to somewhere deep in his gut to simmer and boil and finally be unleashed like demons and angels, screaming or singing toward the sky.
You don't learn to play like this in school; the lessons of Stand Out were learned from hard times, undimmed dreams, and a raw, wild love for the guitar. When you're a sensitive kid, raised in a landscape of gangs and drugs, a guitar can be your best friend. And when you're born with talent, it can also be your shelter from the storm and your ticket to better places.
That's the story behind the music on Stand Out. As you listen to the first track, "Rich Man's Lounge," it's easy to imagine McLin pumping these volcanic rhythms and searing solos through some overdriven amp on a street-corner gig or in a club no bigger than your living room. It's just as easy to imagine him onstage before packed houses anywhere in the world or in major concert venues, sweeping tens of thousands of listeners into the ecstasy of his artistry.
But for the truest picture of where this amazing music comes from, you have to turn back the clock a little, back to when McLin used to plug in and play for hours each day in his bedroom. At 12 years old he was familiar with the world of music: His father and older brother were drummers, Ladell grew up in a world of rehearsals, jazz and blues jammers hanging out, and gigs that would take members of his family away until dawn.
In those days McLin assumed he would wind up playing drums too: He loved the rhythm and once even fell asleep with his head nestled into his father's bass drum during a band practice. But as his brother began spending more time on the road, backing Willie Dixon, Phil Guy, Sly Johnson, and other blues greats, his drums were around less and less. With nothing to play, Ladell wandered down into his aunt's basement one day, looking for something to do.
There he found an old guitar that used to belong to his father. "It was some weird kind of electric," he remembers, "with just three strings. One of the guys in my brother's band had left this amplifier down there, and my auntie kept all these old Chuck Berry records there too. So I found a cord, plugged in, and started playing along. That was it: Just like that, I fell in love with the guitar."
All his friends in those days were into hip-hop, which Ladell also dug. "But the blues stole my heart," he says. "That's what I practiced all day. I was deep in the 'hood, my window was open, my amplifier was blasting, and all these people were hanging out in the alley. I'm playing Chuck Berry, Hendrix, or even Van Halen, and they're going, 'What the hell is going on up there?'"
Ladell had already been working for several years - since he was ten - as a roadie for his brother on local gigs. This got him into Chicago's top blues clubs long before he was of age; their atmosphere, and the sound of giants like Buddy Guy and Junior Wells performing live, felt familiar to him as he built up his own playing. Inevitably he would make his mark in this world. He was 16 when the opportunity came, on one of his brother's jobs, as the guitar player decided to slip away with a girlfriend for a few minutes.
He asked me if I wanted to come up and play," Ladell recalls. "My brother said it was okay. The bass player got upset; he didn't think I'd know what to play. But I held my own. Then the other guitar player came back and said, 'You sound good. Keep playing.' And that was cool."
Encouraged, Ladell began to stretch out more often around town. On another of his brother's jobs he sat in with blues guitar master, playwright, and educator Fernando Jones and his brother Foree Superstar; his performance earned him a place in their band. He began to jam at Buddy Guy's Legends, the city's and arguably the world's top spot for blues; once Lefty Dizz, a legendary player and showman, handed Ladell his axe, which had been strung for southpaws, and invited him to play. Undeterred, the right-handed guitar whiz met the challenge, and word spread further...
Then came the big night, when Ladell took his first turn as a soloist at Legends. He had showed up at the club with his friend Greg Guy, one of Buddy's sons, to jam for a while. But then Greg spotted his father and left McLin alone on the stage. Undeterred, McLin turned up and tore through "Red House." Buddy beckoned him over when he had finished.
He said, 'Hey, you sound good,'" McLin says, smiling. "And I was shaking, man. That was the first time I'd ever gotten up by myself and played and sung at the same time."
Initiated into the house band at Legends, McLin learned onstage from the best in the business: Koko Taylor, Johnny "Guitar Watson," and Buddy Guy himself. He even got to play at the prestigious Chicago Blues Festival while still in his teens, sharing the stage with Fernando Jones, Derek Trucks, and Pine Top Perkins.
Though obviously on his way up in one of the most competitive guitar markets on the planet, that wasn't enough to make ends meet each day. Away from the bandstand he studied electronics in trade school, but until he could turn that education into income he earned money through, as he puts it, "hustling in the streets. This wasn't nothing new to me; when I was 13 I was running a one-mile strip in Chicago. It was harsh, but the music kept me safe and I made it through alive."
After a couple of encounters with the law - one of which left him briefly in jail, handcuffed yet still able to practice his guitar - McLin left to find brighter opportunities away from his home town. He worked for AT&T in Michigan, where during free time he traded guitar licks with one of his colleagues, Wayne Petty - Tom Petty's cousin. From there he went to Wisconsin and formed a band, the Lazy Americans, which played rock & roll gigs around Madison. He spent time in Texas too, but when he hit the road with Eddie Burks for an engagement at Tramp's in New York, his life took a permanent turn.
Chicago is a huge city, but when I got to New York I was amazed, like a deer in front of a car," he laughs. "I said to myself, 'I think I can live here.' And a couple of years later I just woke up one day and said, 'That's it. I'm moving to New York.
It was rough. Though clearly a great player, McLin had no connections and had to scuffle from the bottom for work. When nightlife dried up in the wake of the 911 disaster, he was forced to pawn his guitars to pay rent at flat until the money ran out and he was forced, briefly, to crash at other people's homes.
Fortune finally came in the form of an audition to tour with James "Blood" Ulmer. McLin got the gig, along with hip-hop drum virtuoso Swiss Chris, whom he had met previously, and bass monster Jeremiah Hogea Landess. The three formed a bond that would endure through their jaunt with Ulmer through and after their return to New York.
As the core band behind Stand Out, Chris and Landess don't just connect with McLin's with his sound: They also illuminate his way with a lyric, nurtured years before in the poetic notes he'd write for girlfriends: Writing alone or with collaborators like David Johansen of the legendary New York Dolls, Ladell conjures dreamy imagery in the ballad "House I Built," teases with the playful seduction of "Mona Lisa," and delivers a bitter commentary on "Rich Man's Lounge." But when the music speaks for itself they're there too, as in the closing track, "Universe," in which McLin and Vernon Reid of Living Colour join in one of the most hair-raising guitar dialogs on record - period.
Produced by fast-rising studio ace Brian Devine (Seedy Gonzales, Spanish Speaking Psychics), Stand Out brings McLin to the highest level of guitar. From lightning runs and razor-sharp hooks to siren-like wails that shatter into eruptions of passionate dissonance, he draws inspiration from his heroes and blasts it back with a furious, personal eloquence. His time is now...
...and yet it is in the past too. No matter where his music takes him, whether on new recording adventures or on the road with a killer band that includes Letterman Show guitarist Rebecca Collins' rhythm section, McLin is forever tied to the town that helped him find meaning as a person and as a musician. In June this year he made the trek home once more, to open for Buddy Guy at Legends, just as he had done as a teenager who was yet to shake the world.
On "Play the Blues 4 U," from normal Stand Out, McLin sings, "I ain't got no big name, I ain't no big star, but I'll play the blues for you on my guitar." Soon he may need to rewrite that first line, but he'll definitely be around for years to come, playing - the blues and much more - for all who would chase their music with a shot of truth.