Gramophone Dreams #69: Trance Dancing on Maxwell Street & the Rotel DT-6000 "DAC Transport"

Everyone knows I'm a lucky guy. I was born in Chicago in nineteen-hundred and forty-nine, and as far as I can tell, that was the perfect year to be born. I missed the war, plague, and Depression horrors of the first half of the 20th century, and I witnessed the art, music, and cinema inventions of the second half. Best of all, I was in the right city at the right time, walking down the right streets with the right people, to experience America's new electrified blues—as it was being born on the sidewalks in front of me. At least that's how it seemed looking through my WWII aviator glasses.

I stole those green-tinted shades on the first day of my first job, at Marko's Surplus City on South State Street. Surplus City was a sleazy, filthy mess of a store, sandwiched between the Rialto and Gaiety burlesques. A block north was the Monroe bookstore, where I and my best pals, the Marko brothers, would go to speed-read dirty books on our way to the Greyhound bus station. We had to sneak in and hide behind racks, because you were supposed to be 18 to enter, and we were only 15. But even when they caught us, we were treated with respect because the Markos' dad, the thick-lipped, cigar-mouthed Alfred Markowitz, owned Surplus City, and he was a founding member of this sleazy South State Street business community.

Every Sunday, old "Al" made me and his "boys" come to work with him because Sunday was his busiest day, and he needed us to keep the record racks full and spy for shoplifters.

Surplus City sold switchblades, a hodgepodge of army surplus, fake ruby rings, and records mainly (but not exclusively) from two Chicago-based record labels: Chess and Delmark. There was a gin game in the back room, and a real giant named Tiny (the "human forklift") who moved the heavy boxes while striking fear in the eyes of potential shoplifters.

The Markos' mother, Rose, called her twin boys Ronnie and Freddie, but Freddie called himself "Derf"—Fred spelled backward. His brother called himself "Prune" because he only wore purple (and occasionally leopard skin).

The store's longest wall featured a smattering of LPs, a fair amount of 78s, and thousands of 7" big-hole 45s—by black artists only.

Tiny was a churchgoer, so he was off on Sunday. That meant that Prune and I had to haul boxes and stuff bins. Derf's job was making sure something "righteous" was playing through the store's scratched-wood, shelf-mounted speakers. Old Al taught Freddie to "read" customers and play what he thought they might buy. By the time he was 15, Derf was a blues savant: encyclopedic on the subject of blues records and understanding the people who bought them. White blues musicians like Paul Butterfield, Michael Bloomfield, and Ginger Baker came in to hear new releases and chat with Derf.

Derf's favorite regular customer was an older white boy, a guitar player named Elvin who talked fast and ceaselessly about all the guitar wizards he'd met while sharing generously from his hipflask.

One Sunday, while Marko's old man was in the back room playing gin with some cops, Elvin snuck Derf and me (both wine-buzzed) out of the store saying, "If you want real blues you got to go to Maxwell Street." That was the summer of 1964.


A typical Maxwell Street scene. (Photo from the "And This Is Maxwell Street" CDs.)

Maxwell Street was this crazy, mile-long ghetto of three-tiered shopping: little stores run by Eastern European Jews with heavy accents, fronted in the street by wooden kiosks, and old immigrants with pushcarts, surrounded by poor folks selling merchandise on blankets and card tables. You could buy anything in this unsupervised open-air market (which was centered at West Maxwell and Halsted streets) including guns with a history of crime, home-stilled liquor, and dead people's shoes.

As Elvin led us through the dense Sunday crowd, the scene morphed from cheap shirts and kitchenware to walls of hubcaps and crates filled with car parts—past cadres of three-card–monte hustlers, cardboard-box peep shows fronted by carnie barkers, and on to soapbox preachers with microphones.


Robert Nighthawk (right) on Maxwell Street with another musician, John Lee Granderson. (Photo from the "And This Is Maxwell Street" CDs.)

Maxwell Street's cast of characters was intense, but the reason we were there was the musicians, including seminal blues artists like harpslinger Carey Bell and transcendent singer-guitarist Robert Nighthawk. Plus! The first honest-to-goodness gospel singer I ever saw live: Carrie Robinson. Elvin introduced us to Robinson and gave her a dollar to sing her signature song "Power to Live Right" and perform her "sanctified dance." As I stood there watching Carrie Robinson do her holy trance dance, my head went numb, and something primal broke loose in my brain (footnote 1). I felt the "who am I?" part of my understanding expand. Peering through my lucky shades, I watched sweaty humans dance in the burning sun, clap their hands, hooting at the performers, and slug jug wine with strangers. It felt like a picnic by a river in the Promised Land.

The next day, we bought a nickel bag in Wicker Park on our way downtown to see Carey Bell in somebody's backyard. A few weeks later, we saw Howlin' Wolf at Silvio's, then Junior Wells with Buddy Guy at Theresa's Lounge. You see, it is true, I am a lucky guy, born in the right place at the right time, hanging with the right folks, wearing my just-right sunglasses.

The sounds and raw musical strivings of those Maxwell Street artists still haunt me. I remember asking Derf what the difference was between blues and jazz. When he finished coughing, and the smoke cleared from around his head, he whispered in a rough voice, "Jazz is the music people's fathers listen to while reading Playboy and sipping cocktails." He finished that thought by saying that blues fans were mostly "poor, lust-crazed drunkards who liked to dance and were potentially violent." Like me and Derf!

I had never heard of filmmaker Mike Shea's 1965 documentary And This Is Free: The Life and Times of Chicago's Legendary Maxwell Street, which is about the Maxwell Street music scene, until one day in 2001 when the power of Carrie Robinson, Robert Nighthawk, and harmonica player Carey Bell came screaming back to me in the form of a three-CD box set titled And This Is Maxwell Street (Rooster Records R2641). The digitally remastered tracks on these CDs were transferred from the original analog tapes recorded on a portable Nagra III recorder for Mike Shea's film. The sounds captured by Shea's recordist Gordon Quinn (with a single microphone on a boom) are bright and fantastically clear; every track delivers not only the raw energy of the music but also a strong sense of place resulting from the inclusion of peripheral street sounds and the voices of people near the microphone, chattering, hooting, and interacting with the performers. Each And This Is Maxwell Street track comes wrapped in its own real-life scene from Chicago during the summer of '64.

At the start of a few tracks, this compilation's producers, Ian Talcroft, Colin Talcroft, and Allan Murphy, left in the high-pitched "film-slate" synchronization tones. This was necessary to avoid losing the beginnings of some songs. For me, these tones have served an excellent secondary purpose: They transmit the directness, serendipity, and ad hoc spirit of cinema vérité.

Besides being an important artistic/cultural document, the sonic purity of these made-in-the-street recordings is perfect for assessing the fidelity of a CD player and the system it's connected to.

Perfect Sound Forever Is My Hope!
I never liked CDs. They're cluttersome by nature, their sound leans toward boring, and their sleazy plastic "jewel cases" offend me. Nevertheless, after I sold all but 100 of my black discs (including about 200 45s left over from Marko's store), I bought a $100 Oppo CD player and began collecting Dylan bootlegs, Grateful Dead jams, world music anthologies, and boxed-set CD collections made from rare 78s. From 2001 to 2013, I purchased and played CDs almost exclusively.

During those years of daily digital, I learned that CD's sonic shortcomings (compared to analog) were gross but forgivable. The chief blessing of my CD years was how I learned to bypass my audio-critical brain and listen more inquisitively and intently to the music itself! With my audiophile mind in check, my understanding and enjoyment of musical forms evolved more quickly.

Then Tidal arrived, followed by Roon and Roon Radio, then Qobuz, and now, here I am streaming my way through the history of world music. I haven't played a CD in three years.

I tell people I stopped playing CDs not because streaming sounds better but because all my CD players broke. Like old inkjet printers, I had to set them out by the curb.

Now it's October 2022, and I am playing CDs again. It is a gas.


Rotel's 60th Anniversary DAC Transport
The last time I used a new, in-production CD player was Hegel Music Systems' Mohican, which I reviewed in 2017. The Mohican played only Red Book CDs—no SACD—and offered no digital inputs, only a true 75 ohm (BNC) digital output. But that was long ago. Today I am using Rotel's new 60th Anniversary Diamond Series DT-6000 "DAC Transport," a CD player with a fancy DAC that costs $2300 and features three digital inputs (coaxial, optical, and USB) but no digital output! So it's not what most people think of when they think digital transport."

Footnote 1: "Trance dancing," also known as "holy dancing," is a form of music-enhanced prayer-meditation that invites the Holy Spirit to enter the body of the dancer. Notice that in the video, Carrie Robinson never crosses her feet. That's important because if she did, evil spirits could enter her.

cognoscente's picture

It is good to read a review of an audio component that is affordable for most of us.

Although I am very fond of the ease of use of nowadays digital music (I have never understood the revival of the record player, or the cassette deck / walkman, reel deck, the discsman and yes, it took a while, but then of course the CD (player) nowadays - sales of CDs are on the rise again) I am also against streaming. For the quantitative reason, I don't need to have all, almost all music at my disposal, also the qualitative reason. Streaming is simply not the best way in terms of quality, as described in the review. I am in favor of a simple and, above all, closed system, without all the noise that you also get from the internet in an open system, where you then need all kinds of unnecessary, and therefore too expensive, peripheral equipment to get it all right again (I'm ignoring the power supply for convenience). Data traffic is also a major cost item for the providers, so they have every interest in not sending you the very best, read heavy full, files. But the main reason is that I don't believe in the platform economy, where only the platform really earns from it. I'm not a hi-res audio denier. I still buy music, not a physical CD or SACD, but on Qobuz. AIFF files, so without compression. The full quality. Usually in the highest Hi-Res quality available, if I think it has added value. That is certainly not always. I put the purchased music on my iPhone (which is the storage and remote control) in the Onkyo HF app (which makes it possible to play Hi-Res files, CD quality is a software limitation on an iPhone, not a hardware limitation ) and play the music via a USB cable connected to my dac (I'm also not in favor of wireless audio, BTW Airplay is again limited to CD quality). This is an intermediate form of listening via a physical (CD / SACD) player and streaming. The ease of streaming and the quality of a physical player.

Anyway: what I mean to say, if you still feel the need for a physical playback device, get the Panasonic DP-UB9000. The whole player, including the transport, is built like a tank, or bunker if you prefer. And a good music dac is probably already in your current set anyway. Although the audio dac in this Panasonic is also very good. You also immediately have an excellent Blu-Ray player, for an everlasting build quality, better than the Rotel, and cheaper player than the Rotel.

cognoscente's picture

oh forgot to write, streaming a song 1x takes the same amount of energy as downloading it 1x. And you keep streaming over and over. Every time and again and again and again. So also in terms of climate change, if you believe in that and want to do something about it, streaming is not the best way.

jtshaw's picture

My experience with a Bryston BCD3 CD Player somewhat mirrors Herb's. It's a redbook-only player that truly sounds fully-optimized for its mission. I'm running it with a balanced interconnect into a Luxman integrated amplifer, and I'm getting the best CD sound I have heard in almost 35 years of CD collecting and listening. We still have a lot of CDs at our house, some still unavailable on streaming services. A few are quite rare now (for example, Gilad Hekselman's Split Life, his first recording, live at Small's in New York) that I am so grateful to have. I'll be listening to CDs for a long time even as I enjoy other media as well.

cafe67's picture

And limiting they didn’t include a digital out of some sort even if just a coaxial out.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Marvelous writing, marvelous storytelling.

Herb Reichert's picture

it was a fun story to tell


georgehifi's picture

Like a multi digital input all in one preamp/dac. Great work Rotel!!

But!! and there's always one for me, the only thing missing even though it's on the remote, is a volume control so you can then go direct into your power amp/s.
Hopefully there will be a firmware upgrade to active this, as the ESS9028PRO converter has that ability to easily be turned on. Like Benchmark did on their Dac3 with the ESS9028Pro dac

Cheers George

Ed Oz's picture

This Rotel sounds like a wonderful player; however...for this price point...not being able to play SACD discs makes it a nonstarter. Although I don't have a lot of SACD's, I want one player that will accommodate all the physical disc formats.

ctalcroft's picture

If I may, I'd like to clear up a few details about "And This Is Free," the film, and "And This Is Maxwell Street," the CDs. First, the subtitle ("The Life and Times of Chicago's Legendary Maxwell Street") on the film package you show and that you quote was added later by whoever is marketing the film these days (my brother owns the rights to the sound recordings, not the film). It is not part of the original title of the film. The title of Mike Shea's film was and is simply "And This Is Free."

The CDs were released first in 1999, in Japan, on the P-Vine label, and then in the US (Rooster) and the UK (Katfish), in 2000. The music and street sounds they contain were transferred to the digital domain from Mike Shea's original tapes by Ian Talcroft of Studio IT using the same Nagra equipment Gordon Quinn used to record them on the street. Ian also mastered the discs, created the compilation, and oversaw the project. I designed the CD packages and wrote the liner notes (for which I won a Living Blues Award). Allan Murphy did background research, so it would be more accurate to say that the discs were produced by Ian Talcroft, not the three of us.

In the second photograph, the man described as "another musician" is John Lee Granderson.

Finally, would you kindly edit this review to credit the two photos you've used, to indicate that they are from the "And This Is Maxwell Street" CDs?

Thank you

Colin Talcroft
Santa Rosa, California