Cash Box Kings: Modern Vintage Blues

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Image courtesy of The Cash Box Kings

Last weekend, we were lucky enough to watch The Cash Box Kings deliver a dose of Chicago-style blues with a modern slant. Sponsored by the Crossroads Blues Society, the show drew a large crowd to the Hope and Anchor Pub in Loves Park, IL. Lisa and I went early enough to get good seats and have dinner before the show. The two of us ended up at a table for four; shortly before the show started, a gentleman asked if the other two seats – the only empty seats in the house – were taken. I told him the seats were available, and he asked if he and his girlfriend could sit with us. We said, “Sure,” and as they sat down, he added, “My son plays harmonica in the band.” As a result, we got to hear some inside stories and we met most of the band during the set break. (And he bought us a beer!)

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The Cash Box Kings: A Blend of Talents

The Cash Box Kings are the brainchild of Joe Nosek, whose harmonica playing captures the spirit of legends like Little Walter and James Cotton. Sharing the front-man duties with Nosek is singer and blues musicologist Oscar Wilson, who adds old-school soul and powerful, gritty vocals to the band’s sound. Nosek and Wilson form the core of The Cash Box Kings, along with various combinations of guitarists, drummers, bassists, and keyboard players. For this performance, we were treated to the incredible guitar sounds of Billy Flynn, grooving upright bassist John W. Lauler, and noted blues drummer Kenny “Beedy Eyes” Smith.

The Front Men

Joe Nosek spent his teen years sneaking into clubs in Chicago, listening to Jimmy Rogers, Otis Rush, Junior Wells, James Cotton, and other blues legends. At times, he played in a weepy style that reminded me of Little Walter on Muddy Waters’ Standing Around Crying. Much like the old harp masters, Nosek makes his instrument sing, shout, cry – whatever the song calls for. But why read about it when you can hear it for yourself?

Oscar Wilson was born and raised in Chicago, and his powerful voice lends an assertiveness to the band. Close your eyes and listen to this; you might think you’re hearing Muddy Waters:

A Hall of Fame Guitarist

In 1969, 13-year-old Billy Flynn bought his first electric guitar for one dollar. He also spent a few bucks on blues albums, which he used to teach himself to play. A year later, he formed his own band and in 2016, Flynn was inducted into the Chicago Blues Hall of Fame. According to Joe Nosek, Flynn still likes to play on bargain equipment, showing that the music comes from the soul, not the instrument. Nosek told us, “Some guys pay ten grand for a guitar and amp setup, but they don’t sound half as good as Billy.” I found his guitar style to be laid-back and unassuming. His talent is obvious, but he doesn’t feel the need to shout about it. Flynn’s skills were highlighted throughout the night, and especially in this tribute to the late surf guitar legend Dick Dale:

The Rhythm Section

Grammy-winning drummer Kenny “Beedy Eyes” Smith has the blues in his blood. His father, Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, spent nearly two decades as the drummer in Muddy Waters’ band. In fact, Kenny grew up in the Chicago house where Muddy once lived, and throughout his childhood, he was surrounded by Waters and his other bandmates. In addition to his prowess at playing the blues, Kenny added some impressive surfer-style drumming during the Dick Dale medley. Later in the show, Smith showed off his vocal and harp talents too:

The Cash Box Kings are one of the few bands that feature an upright bass, and John W. Lauler is one of the best in the business. Much like Billy Flynn, Lauler’s playing doesn’t jump out at you, it just keeps a nice steady groove, with occasional fills and slides to add some flair. You can see him demonstrating his slap-bass technique on this song:

Audience Participation

Sure, all bands do the clap-along or sing-along thing with the audience, but how many invite people up on stage with them? During the second set, Nosek brought a few members of the Crossroads Blues Society, as well as one random audience member, on stage to join in their rendition of The Temptations’ My Girl.

Afterwards, one of the guys said, “We sounded more like the Mutations than the Temptations!”

Songs About the Ladies

At one point, Nosek told us a story about a past relationship that was growing kind of old. His dad gave him some good advice: “Don’t bother packing – just leave now, and anything of value in the house, I’ll pay to replace it.” Joe said, sheepishly, “I took his advice … about a month later.” Then they debuted a song from the band’s upcoming album. “We’re still working this one out,” Nosek said. (I don’t know – it sounded pretty polished to me!)

They also did Fraulein on Paulina, a song that Nosek wrote about a young lady who lived on Paulina Street in Chicago. He encouraged the audience to sing along with the chorus and said, “If you don’t speak German, you can do what Billy does and sing La La La La La La.”

Did you catch our review of blues guitarist Dave Fields’ show in Rockford?

Want to hear more from the Cash Box Kings? (Hint: the correct answer is “Yes!”) Check out their website or follow our links to buy some of their music. (We bought their latest, Royal Mint, at the show. It’s great!)

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