Kurt Elling at the Green Mill: Old stomping grounds, new vigor with ‘SuperBlue’ band

Chicago Tribune



Kurt Elling’s first live concert album, “Live from Chicago,” ended up being more than a little prophetic.
Elling recorded it in 1999 at the Green Mill, the venue that gave him a crucial early boost and eventually thrust him into Blue Note Records’ orbit. Back then, Elling was based here, a Rockford native who started singing on the local circuit while in divinity school. Several Grammy nods and a stratosphere-skirting career later, he made his way to New York, as so many homegrown talents do.
Until 2020, when he quietly returned home. Funny how relevant his coy, waggish rendition of the Count Basie classic “Goin’ to Chicago” would become, fielding incredulous questions from the press about his decision two decades later:
“You keep your New York Joys / I’m going to Illinois / Just as fast as I can … I come from Chi-town / Goin’ back to my town / Goin’ to Chicago …”
Elling’s appeared live at the Mill several times since his return, with another set of live shows last August; in 2020, he also performed to empty booths with digital performancescelebrating the 25th anniversary of his Blue Note debut. But Friday’s show felt like an especially warm homecoming, the club stuffed to the gills thanks to slackened COVID regulations and pinch-yourself temperate weather. In the interim, Elling dropped another album: “SuperBlue,” a funky romp released last fall.

First, a disclaimer: The Elling of recent years is not the same Elling that tore up the Green Mill decades ago. His red-hot pipes haven’t cooled, but the way he wields them has, his recent records tilting toward old-school croonerdom and away from the scintillating scatting that first seized aficionados’ attention. But the Grammy-nominated “SuperBlue” seems to have been a jolt to the veins. The superlative guitarist Charlie Hunter, a collaborator since the year of Elling’s breakthrough Blue Note debut, matchmade Elling with young up-and-comers, keyboardist DJ Harrison and drummer Corey Fonville of Virginia-based hip-hop/jazz unit Butcher Brown. Because of the pandemic shutdown, the album was put together as no other Elling album was, the band tracking their instrumentals and handing them over to the singer to have at it. And have at it he did, with a heady mix of standards and originals.
No matter how much has changed for Elling, he and everyone else can count on one thing: The Mill won’t have changed one bit. Except for one detail that rightly got Elling’s goat on Friday night.
“Vonski’s taken a back seat to Stella, man,” Elling griped, pointing to the life-size cutout of saxophonist Von Freeman that used to loom stage right; it’s currently tucked behind “Stella by Starlight,” the distinctive Art Deco statue of Ceres watching over the bar like a sentry. “We gotta get the tape out so he can come on stage again.”

His tangent was met by appreciative hoots in all corners of the club. “You know, if Elon Musk gave me all the money he was going to spend to buy Twitter … I’d build a statue of Von Freeman in Chicago, right outside the Green Mill.” More hoots. “And every Chicago Public Schools teacher would quadruple their wages, plus free breakfast, lunch, and dinner for every student.” Deafening cheers.
Topically, Elling had just come off of a jaunty cover of “Naughty Number Nine,” the bluesy “Schoolhouse Rock” anthem that taught kids their multiplication tables. It wasn’t the night’s only unexpected cover, with a raucous, organ- and drum-driven rendition of AC/DC’s “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap.” But one of the evening’s most unexpected delights was the SuperBlue band’s cover of “Right About Now,” a 1999 song by Canadian singer-songwriter Ron Sexsmith that conjures a latter-day Bob Dylan. Elling paused, then picked up the chorus one more time, a wistful coda.
“Sometimes you gotta sing it a couple times,” he said.

But the evening was “SuperBlue’s” through and through, plus a couple tunes from an unreleased follow-up due later this year thrown in as a treat. “The Seed,” a re-grooved and churned-smooth take on the Roots and Cody ChesnuTT’s original, sprung an electric scat-and-kit duo between Elling and Corey that closed the first set. Harrison picked it back up again with a piquant Wurlitzer groove introducing the title track, Elling at one point rocketing into a room-filling falsetto. Too bad the adrenaline of the evening never gave ballads like “Endless Lawns” — a reprise from Elling’s 2018 “The Questions” — the chance to melt fully, Elling’s voice remaining muscular and uncomfortably hard-edged.
It’s welcome news that we’ll be hearing more from Elling’s SuperBlue band. They’re a supremely talented and tight quartet who know how to have fun, the band trading grins and off-mic in-jokes all evening. Hunter is much more than the glue keeping this collaboration together, with spectacularly inventive solos that matched Elling’s multi-textured, manic own in “Lonely Avenue.”
As for the man of the hour himself? He was infectiously giddy onstage and off, making his usual rounds to chat with patrons between sets.
Sounds like it’s good to be back.
Kurt Elling and SuperBlue perform 8 p.m. Aug. 20 at the Green Mill, 4802 N. Broadway, $20 cash cover. Elling performs at the Green Mill again in October with a new band, dates and details to be announced.
Hannah Edgar is a freelance writer.
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