The late guitarist Honeyboy Edwards wrote in his autobiography, The World Don't Owe Me Nothing, that the blues is "something that leads you," a restlessness born of both discontent and hope. The archetypical blues traveler seeks sanctuary as well as freedom, a safe haven "further on down the line." Pierre Lacocque, founder of Mississippi Heat, still remembers the day when this realization came alive for him.
"I was born in Israel," he recalls. "We are a Christian family, but extremely attracted to Jewish thinking and theology; my father (Andre Lacocque) is a world renowned Old Testament scholar...
Being in a Jewish school (in Brussels, where Pierre and his family moved when he was about six years old) always made me feel different. My brother, sister, and I were the only non-Jews, ever, in the history of that school, to attend. And Belgium is a Catholic country, and we are Protestant, so that was also a kind of different feel. So I was always searching for roots – ‘Where do I belong? Who am I?"
In 1969, Pierre's father took a faculty position at the Chicago Theological Seminary, and the family moved to America. Adrift in yet another new country, Pierre found himself one evening strolling aimlessly around the campus of the University of Chicago, where the Seminary is located. "It was toward the end of the summer, as I recall . . . I had no idea – here I am from Belgium, I don't speak English, and I was just walking along, a little bored; then I heard a sound coming from a few blocks away. I said, ‘Man! What the heck is that?' So I kept walking towards it, with my heart beating and everything – "Damn! I got to go to this! I got to go to this!!"
The "sound" that drew him was the harmonica of blues legend Big Walter Horton, who was playing a concert at Ida Noyes Hall on campus. Entering the hall, Pierre encountered nothing less than a revelation. "I did not know that blues existed as a music form," he insists, "until I came to Chicago. I never had heard it before in my life until 1969. Big Walter – of course I didn't know who he was at the time, a harmonica player, with an amplifier on a chair, and then the bass, guitar, and drums. Like a lightning bolt, it just converted my life; it just changed my life's meaning. I never knew this existed – that sound, that tone. I just said, ‘This is what I want to do!'
In 1970, he moved to Montreal to pursue his education; when he wasn't studying, he continued to hone his chops. He eventually hooked up with a local band called Oven and got a further taste of the blues life when he and his bandmates were burned by a shyster promoter. He returned to Chicago in 1976, but rather than leaping back into the city's blues scene, he took time off to earn a doctorate in psychology and embark on a career as a clinician and researcher. By the late ‘80s, though, he was again feeling restless, and he decided it was time to take the plunge into music once more.
Now a proficient harpist, Pierre worked with various blues aggregations around town. But he craved the opportunity to express himself more fully. "I felt the cry in blues," he explains, "but also the truth about the music. (Guitarist) Jon McDonald, who was a friend of mine, invited me to one of his gigs; it just happened that (bassist) Bob Stroger and (drummer/vocalist) Robert Covington were part of his band. We had such a great time that his brother Michel said, ‘Let's form a band! I'll be your manager."
The result was Mississippi Heat. "Jon McDonald was the first guitarist, and Bob Stroger, and Covington was on drums in the beginning. Then Bob Carter took over [on drums] because Covington wanted to be a front man. ‘The Golden Voice,' man! He had such an impressive stage presence, and his voice, it was just amazing." That voice (as well as Covington's drumming) was featured on the band's debut CD, 1992's Straight From The Heart. But Covington was suffering from health problems. On Stroger's recommendation, Pierre recruited vocalist Deitra Farr. With Deitra at the helm, a reconstituted Mississippi Heat recorded Learned The Hard Way in 1994 and Thunder In My Heart the following year.
By that time, Mississippi Heat's ‘traditional blues with a unique sound,' as their slogan puts it, had been codified, and it's remained intact ever since. Through myriad personnel changes, which have included stints by some of Chicago's most esteemed musicians and vocalists (Katherine Davis, who appears on 1999's Handyman, took over after Deitra struck out on her own in the mid-'90s; the incendiary Inetta Visor stepped in in 2001 and has held the mic ever since), Pierre's beloved dream band has become both a Chicago mainstay and an international ambassador of the living blues tradition.
This CD, Delta eltaelta Bound , is both a showcase for fresh material and an affectionate look back – Deitra has returned to sing a few songs; guitarist Billy Flynn, another early member, is also on hand to contribute his deft meld of rootsy integrity and forward-looking flash. And as usual, the special guests – including Zydeco great Chubby carrier, keyboardist Chris "Hambone" Cameron, and fretboard mainstay Carl Weathersby – ignite almost as many sparks as the core unit itself.
Through it all, the group's shared passion for blues expression, in all its soul-baring honesty, is palpable. "Sweet Ol' Blues, I'm so glad you're my friend," sings Deitra, in what could stand as both Pierre's and the entire band's theme song. "You are my trusted companion, now – yes, my pal, forever on end."
LINER NOTES BY PETER DAVID WHITEIS