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Mississippi Heat bring the blues to Normal in Highway 309 LIVE tribute to Delta Frank Black

In black and white, a man in a black vest and fedora soulfully plays an electric harmonica
Mike Hoffman
Courtesy Lacocque
Pierre Lacocque is the longtime bandleader and harpist of Mississippi Heat. The Chicago blues band ventures to Normal next week for a tribute to WGLT host Delta Frank Black.

The Chicago blues band Mississippi Heat plays the Normal Theater next week, as the next installment of WGLT’s concert series Highway 309 LIVE presented by CEFCU.

The all-blues evening is a special tribute to the Blues Doctor, Gilbert “Delta” Frank Black. Black hosted blues programming on WGLT for 29 years, retiring in 2013. He died in 2020 after a battle with COVID-19.

Harpist Pierre Lacocque is the veteran band leader of Mississippi Heat, which put out its first album in 1993. He expressed no hesitation to accepting the gig celebrating WGLT and Delta Frank.

“From the very first record, your station has been quite present in support, in album reviews, interviews, amazing DJs — but certainly Delta Frank from the very, very beginning showed me unambivalent support,” Lacocque said.

Black was known to say, "If you don't like the blues, you have a hole in your soul.” Lacocque, a minister's son, agrees. For Lacocque, the blues is a creative, intellectual and spiritual pursuit. And he is unwavering in his commitment to blues in the strictest sense.

He carefully abides by established chord progressions, the 12-bar lyric framework and turnarounds. Lacocque finds plenty of room to play within that structure. Alter it too much, he said, and it becomes something else.

“There is a nest, a core that attracts me,” he said.

With origins in the American South, the blues arose from the experiences of enslaved Black people and migrated to northern cities like St. Louis and Chicago during the Great Migration.

“We cannot forget that; that’s the history of that genre,” Lacocque said, citing “the amazing creative intelligence and truth that Black folks came up with.”

“When you hear blues, you hear a universal story about pain," he said. "But it became an existential music, in a sense. It talks about life.”

After 30 years and 13 albums, Lacocque and Mississippi Heat are still going strong and preparing to record a new record next month. At age 70, Lacocque takes nothing for granted.

“We keep on moving forward, thank God,” he said. “You never know what the next day brings — especially in the arts.”

Born in Israel to Christian-Belgian parents, Lacocque lived all over Europe until the family moved to Chicago in 1969.

“From the first time I heard harmonica there, it changed my life,” he said.

Mississippi-born musicians like Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reed, Big Walter Horton and Junior Wells were still playing. Little Walter died the year before Lacocque arrived but remained an influential force in the scene.

But Lacocque’s career nearly ended as soon as it started. After high school, he gigged in Montreal but couldn’t pay the bills. He came back to Chicago, hung it up, pursued a career in clinical psychology and at age 36, picked up his mouth harp again.

The rest is history, though Lacocque admits a life in the music industry has its ups and downs.

“Inspiration, it’s something I cannot control,” he said. “I always say, thank you, God, for giving me inspiration after all these decades. I just appreciate the fact that I’m allowed to be creative.”

Highway 309 Live takes place Wednesday, Sept. 20, at the Normal Theater, 209 W. North St. Doors open at 6:45 p.m.; concert starts at 7:30 p.m. Admissions is free. For details, visit our Highway 309 LIVE hub.

You can hear the second half of Delta Frank Black's final appearance on the air as we replay his 2016 special celebrating WGLT's 50th anniversary. Listen Sunday from 7-9 p.m. on 89.1 FM and streaming at WGLT.org.

Lauren Warnecke is a reporter at WGLT. You can reach Lauren at lewarne@ilstu.edu.