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Toronzo Cannon Brings His Chicago Blues to the Birchmere

By Eric Althoff

Toronzo Cannon’s song “Insurance” might very well likely drive you to fits of painful laughter. The song, off his 2019 album, “The Preacher, the Politician Or the Pimp,” pokes more-than-gentle fun at the need to get coverage lest a health emergency befall you—if you can afford it (ditto for the eventual bill). The lyrics include: “Most prices I can’t afford; it made an atheist call on the Lord.”

“Every song to me is not ‘my woman left me’ type songs,” Cannon said. “I try to dig into stuff that’s going on in people’s lives that are really not spoken about or they’re embarrassed to talk about. So that’s the blues too—not having insurance.”

Cannon laughs good-naturedly at the fact that “Insurance” might be the world’s first blues song to include the word “colonoscopy.” “I hope my fanbase, which is older gentlemen, say, ‘You know what, it’s time for me to get one!’,” said Cannon, who is 54. 

Toronzo Cannon - Photo by Mike White
Toronzo Cannon – Photo by Mike White

It’s that unique ability to make blues fans laugh through their tears that has granted Cannon a most unique career in music. In addition to “Insurance,” originals from his bluesy rotation include “Walk It Off” as well as a hoppin’ paean to his hometown, “The Chicago Way.”

Cannon still lives there, saying he wouldn’t want to reside anywhere else. In addition to playing the clubs in his city, he is taking his music on the road this summer, including a stop at the Birchmere in Alexandria on July 19

However, despite his busy gigging schedule, Cannon shared that only recently was he able to retire from his day job, driving a bus for the Chicago Transit Authority—which he returned to more or less full-time during parts of the pandemic when playing live was impossible. This tentativeness to trust his bills to the vagaries of the music industry (to say nothing of COVID-enforced shutdown of the clubs) was borne of his having grown up in a blue-collar family. 

“It was almost like a side hustle. I never had these big dreams…to say I’m going to do this for a living—and then be a starving artist,” Cannon said. “You can plan all day, but life dictates what’s going to happen to  you. Life don’t care about your plans.

“I still get a pension, but I kept my CDL license just in case!”

It’s maddening that “just in case” even needs to be considered for someone as gifted as Cannon. He has played with some of the world’s greatest living blues legends, including none other than Buddy Guy at the latter’s eponymous club near Chicago’s Lake Michigan waterfront. Cannon was on stage at Buddy Guy’s Legends in the summer of 2019 when he announced to an enthusiastic crowd that the blues legend himself would like to sit in for a few songs.

“Some people would say just because Buddy is jumping on stage that he’s passing the torch,” Cannon said of the now-85-year-old Windy City icon. “And to me it’s, nah, Buddy’s not ready to pass the torch because he’s not ready to be finished burning stuff up.”

Toronzo Cannon - Photo by Mike White
Toronzo Cannon – Photo by Mike White

Even about sharing the stage with one of his heroes, Cannon is humble, choosing instead to believe that Guy’s blessing lends credence to his own music among blues devotees.

“When you think about his lineage and everybody who has played with…he is the last man standing from that era,” Cannon said. “He came in in ‘57. He knew Muddy [Waters], he knew all of our heroes, who were his friends or his mentors.

“To see a guy with that kind of lineage on stage with you—and he’s acknowledging you and he knows my name—that’s another thing. And I never take that for granted because don’t nobody have to know who you are. But he remembers me, the left-handed dude! It’s cool.”

Unsurprisingly, in addition to Buddy Guy, Cannon’s other key influences include “the three kings”: Freddie King, B.B. King, and Albert King. He has also found inspiration in the works of Junior Wells and Bobby “Blue” Bland. That’s not even counting hometown heroes such as Chicago blues pioneer Elmore James. However, you can listen all you want, but it’s key to develop your own style, Cannon said.

“You have to go back and listen to the masters that did this,” he said, adding “even local guys that haven’t so-called ‘made it.’ I would secretly record, then go back home and try to develop something” alongside those surreptitious recordings, Cannon shared.

Even though the life of a working musician is akin to life in a traveling circus—here one day, gone the next—Cannon says that his Birchmere show will maintain his “in-your-face” attitude wherein he and the audience will simultaneously laugh and rock out. Together, they will create something special and unique. “I’m still that 3D-type blues man,” he said of his onstage style. “I’m not just up there playing; we are talking, we are communing as a body of people.”

Toronzo Cannon - Photo by Mike White
Toronzo Cannon – Photo by Mike White

When asked what advice he might have for aspiring musicians if they want to be a frontman like himself, Cannon said a necessary skill there is “corralling three or four guys with different opinions and attitudes,” both onstage and off. He also offers another bit of wisdom.

“Get a passport [as] you never know where music can take you,” Cannon said, adding that he recently dropped this very bit of guidance on a young musician. The tyro heeded the guidance, and six months later Cannon encountered the young man in France. “He looked at me and said ‘thanks for the advice,’” Cannon said.

The bluesman says a new album is forthcoming this fall, and lucky concertgoers might hear one or two fresh songs at the Birchmere. Cannon vows the D.C.-area concertgoers a thrilling experience of Chicago-style blues on July 19. And in the lexicon of that sometimes-dirty genre, he advises female attendees to perhaps bring extra underwear “because you might throw one pair of panties on the stage,” he chuckled. 

“Some people say it’s the Chicago sound, but I would like for my songs to be universal,” Cannon said of his music. “Whenever people think of Chicago blues, I would like to be second in line. [If] Buddy Guy can’t come to your venue, Toronzo Cannon can come and turn it out also. 

“If you can’t get Buddy, you can get Toronzo.”

Toronzo Cannon appears on a double bill with Colin James at the Birchmere in Alexandria, Virginia, July 19. Tickets are available at Birchmere.com.   

Eric Althoff

A native of New Jersey, Eric Althoff has published articles in “The Washington Post,” “Los Angeles Times,” “Napa Valley Register,” “Black Belt,” DCist, ScreenComment.com and Luxe Getaways. He produced the Emmy-winning documentary, “The Town That Disappeared Overnight,” and has covered the Oscars live at the Dolby Theater. He lives in Fredericksburg, Virginia, with his wife, Victoria.

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