How a Second-Generation Chicago Bluesman Survived a Year Without Gigs

Ronnie Baker Brooks proves that there’s at least one good thing happening on Facebook

April 23, 2021 12:58 pm
Ronnie Baker Brooks
Ronnie Baker Brooks plays live at the Chicago Blues Festival in 2013
Jack Vartoogian/Getty

Ronnie Baker Brooks is leaning back in his chair, blue fedora edged rakishly on the back of his head as he adjusts his microphone. “C’mon in, y’all!! It’s another Friday night at the Brooks Blues Basement!” He flashes a smile and announces some of the entering guests as they come online: “Wayne from Houston! Marcella from Calgary! Laura from Switzerland!”  

Royal blue curtains line the stage behind him, and his RBB initials are illuminated next to a row of three guitars. He sips some “listening fluid” from a cup before he turns and picks up a guitar, expertly strumming the chords. “I’m gonna play some blues tonight, but I want to get a little funky!” It looks like the typical scenario for a blues show, except the Brooks Blues Basement is streamed live every Friday on Facebook. When the pandemic hit one year ago, Brooks, 54, a singer/songwriter/guitarist/producer and noted second-generation Chicago bluesman, quickly modified his busy performance schedule to connect with his fans virtually.

“My last show was March 13, 2020 — a tour I was doing with Coco Montoya,” Brooks tells InsideHook. “I thought it was temporary, we rescheduled the dates, pushed them to September, then we finally had to cancel them. I thought, ‘What am I gonna do? How am I going to pay the bills?’”

As clubs and festivals were closed or canceled, musicians found themselves struggling to maintain their presence. Blues performers, though, were especially challenged: Blues is an art form and culture best experienced live, as the call-and-response and energy flow between the artist and audience are integral to the genre. And nowhere was this loss more acute than in Chicago, where the blues is a city hallmark: African-Americans fleeing the Delta brought it with them during the Great Migration, electrifying the acoustic rhythms heard in crowded clubs and markets. This is the music that defines the essence of Chi-town. Before the pandemic, fans could hear live blues here seven days a week. “It’s spiritual music — it’s almost like gospel,” explains Brooks. “ It makes you feel good, whatever you’re going through.” 

Brooks’s wife came up with the idea of taking his show to Facebook Live. “She decorated the basement, and by the end of last March, I started streaming live on Facebook. Initially, I just played. It felt good, and it gave me something to look forward to. Then I developed a program for every Friday and the response was great.”

Playing acoustic versions of tunes from his three albums as well as covers of blues classics by his dad and others, Brooks arranged the show like “a telethon on PBS.” Soon he had tips and donations coming in through Cashapp, Venmo and Paypal. He also sells masks, cups and T-shirts with his logo, as well as CDs. Some shows also feature special guests, like legendary blues master harpist Billy Branch and iconic blues guitarist Jimmy Johnson. His most-watched show saw him joined by Joseph Mojo Morganfield, the son of Chicago blues king Muddy Waters, a week before Morganfield passed away.

Wearing a black mask with his logo, Brooks chatted with Morganfield about growing up with famous blues fathers. (As the son of Lonnie Brooks, a Grammy-nominated blues guitar legend, Ronnie and his brother Wayne Baker Brooks performed extensively solo and as part of the Brooks Blues Dynasty.) “This is the title track from Mojo’s new album,” Brooks says, sliding his guitar onto his lap and ripping through the chords. Morganfield snaps his fingers and sings, “Makin’ all my subjects bend and kiss my ring/Hey lord, lord,/It’s good to be king.”

“People have been inboxing me, explaining how they arrange their schedule around the show,” says Brooks. Listeners also inspired him to record his first acoustic album, which he recorded in Denver with producer Todd Park Mohr of Big Head Todd and the Monsters. The album is currently being mixed; he’s taking cues from Chance the Rapper about how to independently promote it when it’s released later this year. In the meantime, the musician thinks he’ll continue the Brooks Blues Basement even after the pandemic is over. “It shows another side of me. Blues fans get to connect with me on a more intimate level.”

Here’s where to find The Brooks Blues Basement, along with two more recs for Chicago blues icons performing on Facebook, straight from Brooks:

  • Ronnie Baker Brooks and The Brooks Blues Basement, Fridays at 8 p.m. Central
  • Jimmy Johnson, a 92-year-old who plays guitar and sings like he’s back in his Mississippi home
  • John Primer, who was Muddy Waters’s last guitarist, performs lively sets with the Real Deal Blues band on the stage of Blu26

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