Blues Junction Productions 2018
Album Review: Rockwell Avenue Blues Band – Back To Chicago

The good folks at Delmark Records have just released a straight-ahead Chicago Blues album that feels as timely as it does timeless. Nothing new about that, as for over 50 years this label has been the vanguard of the Chicago blues music scene. Their release of Junior Wells’ Hoodoo Man Blues and Magic Sam’s West Side Soul are seminal events in the modern blues world which still resonate today. Bob Koester’s little blues factory on Rockwell Avenue has done it again.

The appropriately named album, Back to Chicago, is an album by a blues collective known as Rockwell Avenue Blues Band. They are led by Tad Robinson, Steve Freund and Ken Saydak. They are joined by bassist Harlen Terson and drummer Marty Binder. Robinson, Freund and Saydak all contribute songs to this generous fifteen-song offering. Bassist Terson writes two songs to round out this mostly original set of music. Robinson, Freund and Saydak divide singing duties evenly and their contrasting styles help to make Back to Chicago a fun journey through the blues.

Robinson continues to bring a more soul and gospel oriented vocal approach to his original songs. However, the blues can be heard in his singing to a greater degree than on his recent Severn Records outings. Freund, whose guitar playing garners much deserved attention, remains one of my favorite blues singers in the business. He draws in listeners and holds their attention without the vocal histrionics that often replace true depth and emotional honesty in the modern blues world.

Then there is Ken Saydak. It is his songwriting and singing that make him sound like a barroom bard, street sage and soapbox preacher all rolled into one cat disguised as a gifted pianist and organist. His songs on Back to Chicago are full of original ideas and creative choices and he applies them to a traditional blues template.

On Back To Chicago the musicianship is first rate. Freund’s guitar, Robinson’s harp playing and Saydak’s keyboards share the spotlight and the first-rate rhythm section holds everything together to make a tightly wound ensemble sound.

Back to Chicago was taken from a three-day session recorded back at the end of 2017 by Dick Shurman. The results are spectacular, as this is a truly experienced band of real blues pros who have been around the block more than a few times. Their command of the blues language is apparent from start to finish. While they all have had marvelous careers accompanying some of the best players in the business, and have numerous recordings under their own names, the combination of talent that represents the Rockwell Avenue Blues Band is a high point for each player. On Back to Chicago the whole is greater than the sum of it’s parts.

– David Mac


Blues Revue

June/July 2006

It’s My Soul
Evidence 26131

Though veteran session man and Big Shoulders bandleader Ken Saydak has left Chicago, his commitment to America’s greatest music remains unabated. On It’s My Soul, the singer-songwriter-keyboardist bolsters the canons of blues and roots music with a dozen compelling new songs, delivered with gruffly good-natured vocals and towering piano and organ performances.

A distinct New Orleans flavor pervades the set, informing “Darling, I’ll Pray for You,” “Road and the Weather,” “Bonedance,” and “Preaching to the Choir.” Traveling upriver, Saydak’s greasy organ and producer Fred James’ insistent guitar hook define “Hanging by a Thread,” a push-pull Memphis funk sizzler. “Hard Work” draws a line connecting blues to country soul; “Two of Everything” is real, hard-luck country. “All I Really Need,” bolstered by electric guitar and organ, is an Americana original on a level with Dave Alvin’s most dramatic compositions.

Saydak doesn’t neglect purer blues styles. “Learned My Lesson,” with beautifully executed solos by Saydak and sax player Dennis Taylor, is a swinging, Chuck Berry-style rocker, “Rearrange” borrows from Cream’s arrangement of Robert Johnson’s “Crossroads,” while “Love in the Dumpster” is a snarling 12-bar blues. On the slow side, “Half Assed Love” features deep-blues piano that would make Otis Spann proud. It’s My Soul is an excellent listen.

Tom Hyslop


July 10, 2005


Many years removed from Big Shoulders, the Chicago easy-listening roots-rock band that never took full advantage of his talents, keyboardist Ken Saydak has built an impressive body of work with his three solo albums and his studio work, primarily on Delmark recordings. “It’s My Soul” is his best stand-alone project yet.

The 13 tunes, 11 of them self-penned, find Saydak in good enough humor to sing with tongue in cheek, “You threw my love in the dumpster, and baby that was downright mean/Who died and made you the queen?” His barrelhouse piano flourishes add to the good cheer.

The band Saydak brought into the Colorado studio is first rate, too. Guitarist Fred James’ production is spartan in the best Chicago blues tradition, leading to a clean, unadulterated sound.

Jeff Johnson


It’s My Soul | Ken Saydak | Evidence Music

Born in one of the blues’ most essential cities, this Chicago native learned from some of the Windy City’s best by playing piano and keyboards on tours by Mighty Joe Young and Lonnie Brooks. In the 1980s, Ken Saydak played an essential part in Texas blues guitar legend Johnny Winter’s renaissance as pianist on several tours and albums, including Winter’s justly famous, Grammy-nominated Guitar Slinger.

This solo album, his third, would certainly be catalogued under “blues.” But listened to closely, it reaches back through labels and categories to clutch the still-pumping heart of the simple and glorious music that became rock ‘n’ roll–the seminal, simmering soul stew bursting with different but related flavors: the twangs of country music, the tangs of New Orleans R&B, the heart pangs of gospel, and the ka-bang! of the blues.

For rock and roll energy, look no further than the cannonball blast opening and title track. Then explore the rhythm underneath “Hard Work,” which flows from the same pool as Fats Domino’s classic New Orleans rocker “Blueberry Hill,” and the slow-rolling “I’ll Pray for You,” which sounds like gospel, blues, and country, then tosses barrelhouse piano boogie onto its collection plate!

Saydak proves an earnest and spirited blues songwriter (composing eleven of thirteen cuts) and musician with a rich and robust voice that sounds ready-made to sing the blues. In fact, his strong voice sometimes overpowers less substantial material (“Two of Everything,” “Road and the Weather”). But given more solid songs, Saydak’s voice rings more true. It nurtures “Half-Assed Love” into a slow-rolling blues piano tidal wave, then spanks “Hanging by a Thread” and “Rearrange,” both of which feature guitar and vocal patterns that sound like Clapton deeply steeped in the blues.

By Chris M.Slawecki

Track Listing:
My Soul; Half-Assed Love; All I Really Need; Darling I’ll Pray For You; Learned My Lesson; Hanging by a Thread; Hard Work; Two of Everything; Bonedance; Love in the Dumpster; Rearrange; Preaching to the Choir; Road and the Weather. Personnel: Ken Saydak: lead vocals, piano, organ; Fred James: guitars; Phil “Fingers” Farrell: bass; David Zehring: drums; Mary-Ann Brandon: background vocals; Dennis Taylor: saxophone.

Soulbag Magazine

Paris, France

The Ken Saydak Band – Love Without Trust
Delmark DE-751 / Socadisc

Note the small variation in the name of this CD from that of the CD preceding it: it’s now a band; the syndrome of the American producer with regard to blues pianists has claimed another victim, even if this one was completely consenting and determined, by this means, to touch more potential buyers.

Because his first Delmark CD was neglected (in fact, ignored by the critics, who found it too basic), even though this warm pianist-singer had completely opened himself in it, this CD benefits(?) from a fuller arrangement, luckily placed in the background — which gives him the space for a number of solos and tone-setting introductions, and he plays all by himself on one of the numbers.

Our man is a true blues pianist, all around, at the same time soft and deep, a worthy heir to Otis Spann, a champion of an instrument which has lost its prestige. In addition, he’s a sensitive composer, occasionally autobiographical, absolutely gifted for socio-economical or philosophical vignettes about daily life and human relationships. The brotherly tones of his voice help to convey his observations, sometimes the expression of someone who suddenly realizes he’s been misused. And when he takes on a song written by another talented author (Bob Dylan, Merle Haggard, or Isaac Hayes, for example), he makes it his own and extracts the underlying blues from it.

You will have certainly understood: I love the music of Ken Saydak (redundant, I know), but it’s important to reassert these things in a world of overabundant guitars!

Andre Hobus

Track list:
Watching the river flow / Love without trust / Junco partner / Breakdown / Don’t blame the messenger / Clo clo boogie / I got it so bad / Can’t trust your neighbor / Big city / Expressions of tenderness / Great Northern stomp / Everybody wants to go to heaven / Illinois. (65:26)