Four days a week, Toronzo Cannon gets behind the wheel of a Chicago Transit Authority bus and drives through the South Side of the city.
Through the windshield, he sees a neighborhood in distress, writing down his observations in “The Chicago Way.”
Six kids on the corner
Up to no damn good
That’s six broken homes struggling in my neighborhood
You’ve got liquor stores everywhere on my side of town
I don’t want my kids to go outside because the thugs are hanging around.
Don’t get my wrong, I don’t want to sing this song about the pain around me
But this is what I see.
That powerful song kicks off the new album from the bluesman who’s been driving the bus for 23 years.
“That was a direct hit,” he said in a recent phone interview. “I had to write a song about what I was seeing on a daily basis. All of the songs, the beginnings of them, were created on the bus. That’s where I’m spending 10 hours a day.
“I’ve got a pencil and paper with me, and at red lights or on lunch break or when I’m sitting and waiting, I’ll write down lyrics that come to me,” Cannon said. “I’ve jumped off the bus at times when I find a melody in my head and hum it out into my phone. Then I’ll finish it at home.”
Cannon, who drives a bus Monday through Thursday and does music gigs on weekends, will headline the Wichita Blues Society’s 19th Annual Blues Ball on Saturday at the Cotillion.
Born in Chicago, Cannon grew up in the shadow of the since demolished South Side public housing project Robert Taylor Homes and close to Theresa’s Lounge, the home of the South Side blues scene, where he first heard the music he would play decades later.
“Me and my sister and brother would go to the shop that was midway down the block from Theresa’s for candy,” he said. “I’d run down the block and look over the banister to see if my uncles were in there. I couldn’t get in, and I couldn’t really see anything but people’s legs. But I could hear stuff.”
But Cannon didn’t grow up with a burning desire to play the blues. He got his first guitar at 22.
“My sister bought me my first guitar,” he said. “I wanted to play reggae music. But everywhere I’d go would be a blues jam. I’d go ‘My grandfather played these records, I know this stuff.’ I was in a reggae band for two years. But when the family started moving back, I thought, ‘I’ll go back and play some blues.’ ”
Working on his chops at the jams, Cannon got his shot at the blues via a Chicago blues institution, singer Tommy McCracken.
“Everybody in the blues scene played a gig from Tommy McCracken,” Cannon said. “He hired me from the jam scene, and the next gig, I was at the Taste of Chicago playing for a couple thousand people.”
Cannon learned more from McCracken than just how to play in a band.
“He made us wear ties and collared shirts and all of that,” Cannon said. “To me, with my band, I understand where he was going. It’s visually pleasing, too. You want people to be turned on visually as well as aurally. Lonnie Brooks once told me that a blues guy needs a good hat and a good pair of shoes, too. It’s an event, so you want to dress up. I think people appreciate it.”
From 1996 to 2002, Cannon played with McCracken, Wayne Baker Brooks, L.V. Banks and Joanna Connor.
By 2001, however, he became convinced he could be a frontman and formed his band, The Cannonball Express.
By 2003, Cannon was working exclusively as a band leader, playing shows and making records. His third album, 2013’s “John the Conqueror Root,” earned a Blues Music Award nomination.
“The Chicago Way,” his Alligator Records debut, was released in February.
It’s filled with smoldering blues about divorce, midlife crises and life in Chicago and is rooted in tradition but yet is fully contemporary with horns and choruses added to a mix that’s driven by his stinging guitar.
“You always want to be better than your last CD,” Cannon said. “I can safely say this CD for Alligator is the best I’ve done. The next one I do for Alligator will be even better. I can promise you that.”
Cannon brings the songs from “The Chicago Way” and his previous records to vibrant life in a live show that’s both relaxed and captivating.
“It’s like sitting in my living room,” Cannon said of his shows. “I’m very social. I’m a guy telling you stories and hanging out. Sometimes you won’t know if I’m a musician or just a friend. I do put on a show, no doubt. But my storytelling kind of blues, it’s like a (PBS) ‘Soundstage’ or something. I’m talking and playing. There’s no set script. It’s very comfortable and relaxed, and it’s fun.”
Who: Toronzo Cannon and special guests Old No. 5’s and the Dennis Brothers
When: 8 p.m. Saturday; doors open at 7 p.m.
Where: Cotillion, 11120 W. Kellogg
Tickets: $20 advance; $25 day of show