Sunday, December 14, 2008

In the Pocket with Mr. Solid

Return to the Musical Mother Land Part I

By John Lee

My better half, Nancy Rapp, and I recently traveled to Memphis, Tennessee, the Mississippi Delta, and to the Arkansas Blues and Heritage Festival (the King Biscuit Blues Festival) in Helena, Arkansas. Here’s what we did from my perspective:

Day 1 - Friday, October 3rd

My buddy Dan Newton, our guitar player and keyboard man from The Crossroads Band, gave us a ride to SeaTac Airport. We caught a 10:30 AM flight to Minneapolis, Minnesota and then we caught a connecting flight to Memphis. Travel went by without a hitch. It just took awhile!

We picked up our rental car, which was supposed to be a Ford Focus, but Hertz upgraded us to a Toyota Camry. A very nice car, and good mileage too! Our motel, the Hampton Inn, was located in south Memphis not too far from the airport. A very short ride, for sure. Just before we left the airport we grabbed a copy of "The Memphis Flyer," a weekly newspaper that combines politics, arts, and entertainment similar to our "Seattle Weekly." When we checked in to our room, we picked-up a copy of the Memphis daily paper, "The Commercial Appeal." Then when we went right to the "Go Memphis" section (arts and entertainment) and saw that the great Stax artist William Bell was playing a free show that night backed by the great band, The Bo-Keys. It was 8:30 PM and the show started at 7:00 PM. The show would be done or nearly over by the time we pulled it together, so William Bell was a no-go. We looked to see what else was going on and saw that the Pink Palace Museum was having a four day crafts fair and fund raiser at Audubon Park, right near the University Of Memphis. We decided to check that out the next morning just before our trip to the Stax Museum of American Soul Music.

We both were very hungry, and talked about eating at Popeye’s right across the street. Popeye’s it was for some damn good fried chicken, red beans and rice, and biscuits. For fast food that was some mighty fine eatin’. Plus, the restaurant played some great New Orleans R&B. Popeye’s originated in the Big Easy. We were already on our way to getting in a Southern state of mind. It had been a long day and a good night’s sleep was in order. Tomorrow would be our first full day in the great city of Memphis, Tennessee.

Day 2 - Saturday, October 4th

We started our day off with a real nice complimentary breakfast in the lobby of the Hampton Inn. A breakfast buffet that included eggs, sausage, grits, biscuits, fruit salad, yogurt, muffins, bagels, sweet rolls, cereals, and three kinds of juice make the Hampton Inn breakfast a crowd pleaser! Full and awake we headed out to The Pink Palace Crafts Festival in Audubon Park. There were 205 artists selling things like blown glass, ceramics, woven rugs and wood carving, so there was always someone doing a demonstration. With 40 food vendors, music, and dance, it all added up to a lively good time. Hey, I even found some chai tea.

After two enjoyable hours we headed toward The Stax Museum of American Soul Music, located on the original studio site, at 926 E. McLemore Avenue. This museum is a shrine with over 2,000 artifacts and exhibits honoring the music of Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Carla and Rufus Thomas, Isaac Hayes, The Staple Singers, Eddie Floyd, William Bell, and dozens of other Stax recording artists. There is also a section honoring the Hi and Goldwax soul labels. The Hall of Records - a hallway with all the singles and albums of the Stax label on display on both sides of a walkway is a total wonder. The display of the knee-high platform boots/shorts and cape outfit that Rufus Thomas wore in the Watts/Stax film is almost worth the price of admission! There were also two temporary photo exhibits that were really well done and of great interest to me. The first was a collection of photos titled "Otis Redding- from Macon to Memphis," an exhibit from the private collection of Zelma Redding, Otis’ widow. The second was a collection of photos by Howard Morehead of Ray Charles called "I Shot Ray Charles." Both sets of photos were outstanding. The Stax Museum is a must see spot on the music lovers list when you visit Memphis.

While we were at the Stax Museum, we saw a map that showed what people lived in the neighborhood near Stax, and it showed Royal Recording Service just four or five blocks away. Royal is the studio where most of the great Hi Records recordings were made. Al Green, Ann Peebles, Syl Johnson, Otis Clay, and many others made their legendary records at this studio. The great musician, bandleader, and producer, Willie Mitchell, who produced most of the Hi records sessions owns the studio, and Royal is very much an active studio today. The address is 1320 Lauderdale. The four blocks going from McLemore Avenue, past the studio to South Parkway has now been renamed Willie Mitchell Boulevard. Nancy took pictures and we paid homage to the birthplace of some of the sweetest soul sounds around.

We took our ride back to our motel to freshen up, then to downtown Memphis for dinner and some music. We went to the Rendezvous for ribs. This world famous eatery is located in an alley and downstairs justthree blocks from Beale Street. The food is so good I refer to the Rendezvous as “a basement of pure culinary pleasure.” We both had the ribs. After our incredible meal we headed to actor Morgan Freeman’s juke joint, the Ground Zero Blues Club, just one block over from Beale Street. There we heard the much heralded Memphis guitar man Preston Shannon. Mister Shannon’s band was a tight six piece ensemble that played original blues, covers and Memphis R&B, songs like Eddie Floyds "634-5789" and Otis Clay’s "Tryin to Live My Life Without You." I dug the sounds and I got to chat a minute with Preston Shannon. He seemed to be a real nice fellow. I hope the Northwest folks can hear him live sometime.

After two sets at Ground Zero we hit the streets and cruised down Beale Street, which was packed. We stopped in to A. Schwab's, a store that’s been on Beale Street since 1876. Originally an old fashioned general store, now A. Schwab's sells mostly souvenirs and knick-knacks. There are things there that you won’t find anyplace else. The place is a gas. After 30 to 40 minutes tripping around A. Schwab's, it was time to get some sleep. We took the short drive on I-55 and I-240 to our room, looking forward to another day in the home of the blues, the center of Soul, and the birthplace of rock and roll, Memphis, Tennessee.

Day 3 - Sunday, October 5th

After we finished eating breakfast at the Hampton Inn, we went back downtown, took a monorail to Mud Island River Park and went to the Mississippi River Museum. The museum is a fantastic study in the history of the river from the time of the early American natives, to the Spanish explorers, and the development of shipping and commerce up and down the river from Minnesota to New Orleans. There is a substantial section devoted to the Civil War and another that shows the blues and its influence along the mighty Mississippi. The exhibit ends with a great view of the river. If you go to Memphis, I would highly recommend the Mississippi River Museum. Right at the museum is a shop that rents bikes, canoes, kayaks, and pedal boats. Nancy and I rented two bikes at $10.00 each for two hours. We cruised around the park and then to a large neighborhood on the island called Harbor Town. We rode along this very lengthy park that runs along the river for about a mile and a half. We had lunch at a deli and grocery where we both had a very good Greek salad. Then we drove our mountain bikes back to the rental shop.

We left the island and walked thru downtown. Almost right away we heard it - live music, very good live music! We found the group at a park in the heart of downtown Memphis. As we were listening I realized we were checking out the classic Memphis group The Bo-Keys. The Bo-Keys are an eight piece band that plays the Memphis sound to a tee. Skip Pitts on guitar is the man who played the wah-wah guitar on Isaac Hayes’ opus “Shaft." One of the two trumpet players is Ben Cauley, former member of the Bar-Keys and the only man to survive the Otis Redding plane crash in 1967. The bass player is Scott Bomar, the extraordinary bass player who put together the soundtrack for the film “Black Snake Moan" with Samuel A. Jackson and Christina Ricci. The Bo-Keys played a nice 20 minutes, and then they were joined by vocalist John Gary Williams, former singer with the Stax recording group, The Mad Lads. Mister Williams belted out “Knock on Wood” by Eddie Floyd and “Dock on the Bay” by Otis Redding. Then Ben Cauley joined Mister Williams in a Sam and Dave medley. It was mighty good. It was hard to tell it wasn’t the legendary soul duo just by listening. They all played at least 2 hours and it was some of the finest music I’ve heard in awhile. It turned out to be a get-out-the vote event. What a marvelous accident!

We headed to 143 Beale Street and B.B. King's Blues Club for a little BBQ and some boogie. B.B. Kings is a funky, large club that has good views from the ground floor and the balcony too. We were given a balcony table with an excellent view of the stage. We ordered the B.B. King nachos and instead of salsa, it came with BBQ sauce. I liked it fine, but Nancy didn’t care for it. I ordered the BBQ chicken and Nancy the Caesar salad. It was a tasty meal. The music was the rock/blues guitar playing and singing of Corey Osborn. The rest of the group consisted of a bass player, drummer and a Hammond organ player. We caught a lengthy set and then went back to our room. A real hoot about B.B. King's is there was a rest room attendant. When you wash your hands the gentleman gives you a shot of soap and then a towel. He also had cigarettes, gum, chicklets, and cigars for sale too. A throw back to an earlier time, for sure - what a trip!

Day 4- Monday, October 6th

Right after breakfast we went right to Sun Studio located at 706 Union Avenue, not too far from the heart of downtown Memphis. We had about a 30 minute wait until the next tour, but the gift store is a fun place to hang out and check out all the souvenirs, including t-shirts, CDs, and books available for purchase. The gift shop is where the tour begins and in the early days it was a café where all the studio participants would hang out and grab a bite to eat. The tour begins in a small museum upstairs with lots of memorabilia and a complete rundown on the studio's history. The young lady who was our tour guide did a great job and had a great sense of humor. Sun Studio opened on January 3rd, 1950, under the name of the Memphis Recording Service. Sun is well known for the early recordings of Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, and Jerry Lee Lewis, but before them, Sam Phillips recorded early sides for B.B. King, Little Milton, Howlin' Wolf, and Rufus Thomas to name a few. "Rocket 88" by Jackie Brenston and the Delta Cats featuring a very young Ike Turner on piano, the song many people consider the first rock and roll tune, was recorded at Sun in 1951. The tour ends in the actual studio and the tour guide gave us more history and more tidbits of great interest. The tour of Sun Studios is a must for any American music fan. Sun Studios is another shrine in the musical Mecca of Memphis, Tennessee.

The Man, the Myth, the Legend - John Lee!

We headed back to the heart of downtown, parked our rental car and hopped on the Riverfront trolley which travels on a loop along the Mississippi River and then thru the heart of downtown by way of Main street, going thru the Pinch District and the historic South Main District where the Civil Rights Museum is located. The Civil Rights Museum is housed in the Lorraine Hotel and Motel where civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968. We didn’t take in the museum this trip, we did two years ago, but it is a moving and emotional experience that gives you a great understanding of the civil rights struggles in the middle of twentieth century America. I highly recommend it.

After a nice ride on the trolley we developed an appetite and stopped at the Arcade Restaurant right on the trolley line at South Main. The Arcade is a Memphis institution with a great past. Opened in 1919 and owned by the same family for three generations, the Arcade has an eclectic menu that features down home breakfasts with specialty items like sweet potato pancakes and lunch items like pizza. I had a salad and a side of hash browns. Nancy had a small pizza and a side salad. The Arcade also features ham and biscuits, salads-with nice gourmet greens, and Elvis’ favorite, the peanut butter and banana grilled sandwich. Both Elvis and R&B/soul legend, Rufus Thomas frequented the café and each has a booth named in their honor at this cool and funky classic diner styled eatery. Scenes from many major motion pictures were filmed here including "Mystery Train," "Walk the Line," "21 Grams," "The Firm," and "The Client." I really dig the Arcade, it’s a great spot to catch a delicious and reasonably priced breakfast or lunch in downtown Memphis.

Filled up, we hit the streets and headed to the heart of downtown. We ended up at the majestic and beautiful Peabody Hotel. The original Peabody was built in 1869 but closed in 1923. In 1925 the Peabody was resurrected in its present location on Union Avenue. Just like Memphis itself, the hotel was very much a part of music history. In the late '20s and early '30s, Furry Lewis, Frank Stokes, and Tommy Johnson made their first recordings at the Peabody for record labels like Paramount and Vocalion. In the 30s and '40s The Peabody was one of only three live radio sites to broadcast the likes of Harry James, Paul Whiteman, and Tommy Dorsey to a dance craving nation.

We ordered a drink and settled in to check out the Duck March. Let me tell you about the Peabody Hotel and the ducks. In 1933, the hotel’s general manager, Frank Schott and a close friend were duck hunting in Arkansas, and, as legend goes, the two were feeling no pain from a fair amount of Lynchburg, Tennessee's finest, Jack Daniels! They came back to Memphis and to the lobby of The Peabody to put a number of live decoy ducks in the fountain. Live decoy ducks were legal at that time, and the patrons of the hotel thought this was great fun. To this very day ducks are in the Peabody’s fountain seven days a week. At 11:00 AM, the ducks that live on the roof are escorted into the elevator, transported to the ground floor, out of the lift, down a red carpet, and into the ornate fountain in the grand hotel’s lobby. The ducks frolic there, until 5:00 PM, when they are led back down the red carpet, into the elevator, and back to their home on the roof. We went to the roof after the ducks and took in the spectacular view of Memphis and the Mississippi River with our drinks in hand. It’s things like this that can make this life so much fun.

We walked back to our car by way of Beale Street and said our goodbyes to downtown Memphis for this trip. We drove back to our room, and when we got into the lobby, we found that the Hampton Inn had put out a complementary spread of quesadillas, tortilla chips, salsa, and soft drinks. Very nice! The day before, I had asked the front desk for a cloth to clean my shoes, and they were so impressed that I didn’t just use a wash cloth that the management gave me a coupon for a free film and microwave popcorn. We picked the delightful Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson movie, "Bucket List," a nice kicked-back thing to do on our last night in Memphis.

Day 5 - Tuesday, October 7th

We had our last complimentary breakfast at The Hampton Inn, checked out of our room, and took our ride out of Memphis and into Mississippi, the land of the Delta blues in the pouring down rain. A half hour into our trip, we stopped at a visitor center and picked up a lot of info on some of the places we wanted to visit like Greenwood, Indianola, Leland, Clarksdale, and Greenville, Mississippi. We made a stop in Greenwood, about 120 miles from Memphis, the home town of guitar great Hubert Sumlin and the burial site of Delta blues legend Robert Johnson. (we didn’t visit Mr. Johnson’s resting place this trip) and the location of Mattie’s soul food restaurant where we ate two years ago. Mattie’s is no longer in business, but we did find a BBQ and delta cooking spot called Steve’s that has great food. We both had black eyed peas and turnip greens. I had ribs and Nancy had chicken. Most definitely very good food!

While we were finishing up our lunch, the owner came by and gave Nancy a piece of chocolate cake on the house. I took a pass. You've got to cut back somewhere, sometime. As we were leaving, we struck up a conversation with Steve and some regulars. They were good old boys and much different than a lot of the folks you run into in the Northwest. We hit it off with Steve and he gave Nancy and I both a Steve’s BBQ t-shirt. Cool. We said our goodbyes and got in our ride - next stop Indianola and The B.B. King Museum. If you ever find yourself in Greenwood, Mississippi and your hungry, do yourself a favor and eat at Steve’s. It is most definitely good eats!

We cruised down Highway 82 about 30 miles and stopped to check into our motel, the Best Western-Blues Traveler Inn. We freshened up and went to the B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center about eight blocks away, a few blocks off the main highway. The museum is not only a testament to the man born Riley B. King, but also a glowing tribute to the great American art form known as the Blues! The museum took us on the incredible journey of B.B. King from his life as a sharecropper in Indianola (B.B was born and raised in the area) his musical education in Memphis, his rise to super stardom, and his place as the world’s ambassador of the blues. The museum is a wonderful experience with 100s of pieces of memorabilia illustrating Mr. King’s influence and the many contemporaries who shared his journey like Bobby Bland and Rufus Thomas. This is a new addition to the list of great American musical shrines that should not be missed by the true music fan. We spent two enjoyable hours at the museum and both Nancy and I were getting hungry.

We left the museum and drove down Highway 82 which cuts right thru the heart of Indianola. We found a nice Mexican restaurant called the Guadalajara with good eats and excellent salsa. On the way back to our room we stopped at the Sunflower Market to pick up some laundry detergent and a 12-pack of Barq’s root beer. We needed to do laundry and I dig root beer. Then we caught a much needed good night’s sleep. Having so much fun can be exhausting!

Day 6 - Wednesday, October 8th

We started the day with a complimentary breakfast provided by the Best Western. It was just OK - nothing compared to the spread at the Hampton Inn in Memphis. The weather had turned beautiful once again. The day before was overcast and raining, and it was dusk and too dark when we got out of the B.B. King Museum to get some pictures of some of the blues sites around Indianola. So we set out to get some photos, and then check out the towns of Leland and Greenville, Mississippi. First up, we checked out the well known juke joint, Club Ebony, which has been providing great music and good food since 1945. Over the years, Club Ebony has been a regular road stop for many great musicians like Count Basie, Ray Charles, James Brown, Willie Clayton, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Milton, Ike Turner, Bobby Bland, and B.B. King. Mary Shepard owned and operated the legendary club for the last 30 years, but recently sold it to B.B. King.

We next headed just a few blocks from Club Ebony to the corner of Church Street and Second that is the spot where B.B. King would play when he was as young as 17. This spot is highlighted by a Mississippi Blues trail marker (Club Ebony also) that commemorates and honors places and people of importance in Mississippi blues history. There will over 120 Blues trail markers when the project in complete. According to Steve Cheseborough, country blues musician and author of the must have "Blues Traveling-The Holy Sites of Delta Blues" guide book, B.B. King began playing church songs at this corner and folks would smile and were friendly, but when he played the blues, they gave money. It didn’t take the young Riley B. King long to figure out which side of the bread was buttered! We also stopped by a park named for Mr. King, and then drove down highway 82 toward Leland, Mississippi and the Highway 61 Blues Museum.

This part of the Delta is flat and filled with many cotton fields and catfish farms. As we entered the Leland city limits we were greeted by a sign that stated "Welcome to Leland Mississippi-Birth place of Kermit the Frog." Muppet creator Jim Henson was born and raised in this area. The visitor center houses a small Jim Henson Muppet museum. We dug on some Muppet history and found directions to the Highway 61 Blues Museum (Leland is at the junction of Highways 61 and 82). The museum highlights, with cool and funky exhibits, many of the great blues musician that are from the area such as Jimmy Reed, Willie Foster, Son Thomas, Charlie Patton, Eddie Cusic, Little Milton, Honey Boy Edwards, Eddie Taylor, and Tyrone Davis. Johnny and Edgar Winter were born in Leland, and though they moved to Texas with their parents, they would come back every summer and visit their grandparents. They are also featured at the museum. We spent about an hour checking out this heartfelt space and ran into three women from Washington, DC and Patrick Thomas, son of the legendary Son Thomas played some blues on his electric guitar. We had a very nice time.

We hit the streets and checked out the four music murals that dot the small downtown. My favorite was the Jimmy Reed mural. We hit the road and drove down Highway 82 to the Delta’s largest town, Greenville Mississippi, home to blues players T-Model Ford, Lil’ Dave Thompson, and piano wizard Eden Brent. We cruised around town, but saw nothing in particular. I guess we were letting the heat take a little wind out of our sails. The temperature had been between 80 and 88 degrees everyday and we were getting hungry. We had seen a billboard that was advertising a show by the great soul/blues singer Willie Clayton on Saturday October 11th at Harlow’s Casino. One thing I’ve learned is Mississippi casinos have great buffets. So we drove about 10 miles and had some of the best Delta cooking I’ve ever experienced. Ribs, fried chicken, two kinds of catfish, fried and baked ham, turnip greens, cooked carrots, mashed potatoes, gravy, red beans, rice, a huge salad bar with lots of fresh fruit, and a large selection of desserts that included peach cobbler, bananas foster and ice cream. Man, this was top shelve cuisine - damn good eats!! At $9.00 for all you could eat, we most definitely filled up.

With our hunger in check, we drove back to Indianola and our hotel to do a couple of loads of laundry. While we were waiting for our laundry to complete their cycles, we watched "Dream Girls" on HBO with Beyonce, Jamie Foxx, Eddie Murphy, and Jennifer Hudson. This was a fictional telling of the story of the Motown super group, The Supremes. Not a bad film. I really thought Eddie Murphy was a standout as an authentic, very fragile, R&B singer. Hey, with the late lunch we had, we didn’t need dinner. The next day we would drive to our new digs in Clarksdale, Mississippi and partake in the Arkansas Blues Festival in Helena and the Pinetop Perkins homecoming at the Hopson Plantation in Clarksdale. I’ll be back soon to tell you all about it.

Note: I would like to give a nod to the book "Blues Traveling-The Holy Sites of Delta Blues" by Steve Cheseborough, whose fine writing and historic information was an invaluable resource for some of this content. Thanks, Steve.

Quotes of the Month

The Stax Museum of American Soul Music has a very cool phrase on their brochure that I really like, "Nothing against the Louvre, but you can’t dance to Davinci.”

Some of the lyrics to Son Thomas’ Beef Steak Blues are the finest of the genre:

“Give me beefsteak when I’m hungry,
Whiskey when I’m dry,
Pretty women when I’m living,
Heaven when I die...”

Electric bassist John "Mr. Solid" Lee was born in Alaska and has been active in the Seattle blues scene for about 30 years. He currently plays with the Crossroads Band. Photo by Mike Coyote.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Seydel Harmonicas - the new Sheriff in town?

I have been playing Hohner Harmonicas since 1972. I started out with the Marine Band, moved on to the Special 20, and have been using the Golden Melody model for years now. In my opinion, one thing has always been consistent with the Hohner harps over the years - poor quality control.

Buying harmonicas at the music store is problematic, because, unlike other instruments, you can't play the darn things before you buy them! Every store has the totally inadequate countertop bellows device that can be used to blow air through the harp, but all this tells you is if the reeds are working, not how hard (or easy) the thing is to play. I can't tell you how many times I've found a brand new harp impossible to play, and, because I've had it in my mouth, the store won't take it back.

Seydel Silver harp with plastic comb.

What to do? Well, you can buy a Hohner from the music store then send it out to a customizer, who can dramatically improve the playability of the instrument for a typical fee of $100-$150 (for a 10-hole diatonic harp). Of course, the pros keep these guys pretty busy, so the waiting times can be long. Plus, once you add the customizing fee to the current $30-$40 price of off the shelf Hohners, you are looking at a pretty large hunk of change for a complete set of instruments.

So, I was intrigued a few weeks ago when Seattle blues harp maestro Bubba McCoy called to tell me that he had been set up as an authorized distributor of the Seydel line of harmonicas. I had been hearing about the Seydel harps for a while, so I ordered a Seydel Silver harp in the key of C to replace the terrible Hohner Golden Melody I had purchased recently.

Wow - what a difference! The Seydel sounds great, plays beautifully, and feels good in the hand and mouth. On of the nice things about Seydel is that you can order the instruments (including chromatics) in all sorts of tunings, including the hard to find "low" tunings, which means I can finally buy the low F harp that I've been wanting. Of course, the Seydels should be an improvement over the Hohner - at a list price of $90 a pop for the Silver instrument (with a plastic comb), they are not cheap. However, if the quality of the next Seydels I purchase is the same as this first harp I bought, I will start retiring the Hohners.

Interested? First, check out the Seydel web site for more information on the product line, then give Bubba McCoy a call at 206-799-7675 for pricing and availability. Tell him the Playboy sent ya!

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The 2008 Raven's Jam for Cans Show

By Phil Chesnut

Long recognized as a highlight of the autumn blues season, Raven's Jam For Cans for 2008 certainly lived up to all expectations. Conceived over a decade ago by Sheri and Raven Humphres as a benefit for Northwest Harvest, this event has grown tremendously over the years with not only great music, but with a chance for out blues community to lend a hand as well.

Boasting another gigantic lineup with some of the Northwest's finest blues talent, this all day blues marathon ran smoothly, as usual, at Seattle's stellar blues joint, Highway 99 Blues Club. Ed and Steve and the whole Highway 99 staff, along with the event producers, made sure that this was another first class show.

With such great headliners as Duffy Bishop, David Brewer, Patti Allen and a superb supporting cast including, Portland's Chris Carlson and Peter Dammann, and Seattle blues aces Mike Lynch, Jeff Herzog, Stan Eike, Howard Hooper, Kirk "KT" Tuttle, Nick Vigarino, Annieville, Rob Moitoza, Billy Reed, Billy Lovy, Scotty Lind, Jeff Hayes, to mention a few, plus that monstrous horn section with Randy Oxford, Billy Blackstone and Jeff Beales, this show was truly unforgetable.

Though this reporter got there a bit late, I still think that I was able to capture the essence of this all too worthy blues event with my camera.

Patti Allen, Raven Humphres, Bill Blackstone, and Howard Hooper.

Nick Vigarino, Don King, unknown fiddle player, and Bill Blackstone.

Nick "Guitar Face" Vigarino

Ed and Steve

Chris Carlson and Duffy Bishop.

David Brewer and Kirk Tuttle.

David Brewer

Sunday, November 16, 2008

CD Review - "Mavis Staples Live - Hope At The Hideout"

By Mark Dalton

I can’t think of a better way to celebrate the historic victory of our President-elect, Barack Obama, than to run right out and pick up a copy of Mavis Staples’ new live CD, "Hope at the Hideout." Mavis Staples and her family were themselves an important part of the civil rights movement in this country; marching with Dr. King, singing at many of the important events of the struggle, writing, recording and performing songs that lifted the spirits and stiffened the resolve of the thousands of Americans who repeatedly put themselves in harm’s way to further the cause of freedom and equality for all our people. This CD is a live, impassioned performance of classic songs of that struggle, interspersed with Mavis’ commentary and stories of this amazing history. This performance clearly demonstrates that, at age 69, she has lost none of her power as a singer and performer – and none of the determination, intelligence and righteous anger that carried the Staples Singers through half a century of relentless touring from the little wooden churches of the rural south, to the top of the hit parade in the '70s with songs like "I’ll Take You There."

This CD was recorded in the classic, spare Staples Singers style - Only a trio of musicians, a trio of backup singers (including surviving sister Yvonne Staples), and Mavis out front, one of the most amazing voices in the history of American music.

I have to offer big kudos to guitarist Rick Holmstrom for his superlative, tremolo-laden performance here. I knew Rick was a fine guitarist and a powerful bluesman, but Pops Staples’ shoes as a guitarist are huge and hard to fill. Pops’ guitar playing came right out of the Delta, and really encompassed the entire history of the Blues as a unique, subtle, soulful finger-style foundation to all of the Staples’ music. Holmstrom does an amazing job of providing that foundation here – capturing the complex spirit of Pops’ music without ever sounding like just a copy of his work – Holmstrom rather inhabits this music, while bringing his own ideas and sense of creativity to the songs as they unfold.

The set opens up with a reworking of the old Buffalo Springfield tune "For What It’s Worth" – sounding perfectly ominous, leading up to a presidential election that many feared wouldn’t even be allowed to happen, and if it did, would surely be at risk of being stolen. But this sort of paranoia was always what the Staples Singers struggled to overcome, and the very next song is "Eyes on the Prize." The problem and the solution. Oppression, and struggle. This mix continues throughout the performance with songs like "Down in Mississippi," "Waiting for My Child" and "Why Am I Treated So Bad" talking about life’s struggles, and anthems like "We Shall Not Be Moved" and my all time favorite "Freedom Highway" ("...walk, on freedom highway, walk, each and every day… made up my mind, that I won’t turn around…"). By the end of performance she has the crowd on their feet, singing along, filled with spirit!

Mavis Staples has been getting me out of bed, helping me do things I need to get done ever since I got my first Staples Singers ’45 at the age of 14 ("Will the Circle Be Unbroken" - also on this CD - with her singing lead on the anguished flip side, "Don’t Drive Me Away"). I told her about finding that record (in Nebraska) when I talked to her backstage at Bumbershoot a couple years ago. "Honey I was just a child when I recorded that song!" She said this with a far away look in her eye, and leaned back into the couch we were sitting on together and sang 'Oh Lord… don’t drive…. your child…. away.'

One of the best moments of my life. Get this CD. You’ll see what I mean.

Originally from Nebraska, Mark Dalton moved to Seattle in the early '70s. He is an accomplished bassist and stalwart bluesman. He currently plays with Chris Stevens' Surf Monkeys. Photo by Ronda Lee.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Come on, baby don't you want to go...

By John Stephan

In August of this year, I traveled to Chicago to visit friends and check out the blues clubs. I heard Willie Davis and the All-Star Blues Band at Buddy Guy's Legends club. The place was jam-packed and the band was loud and proud. Great typical Chicago style blues - nothin' fancy, but the crowd loved every minute of it.

A new location has been planned and was announced in the club's August calendar. The first thing that's evident is the diversity of acts who are booked there, although all are firmly rooted in the blues. With a central national location and the deep heritage of Chicago, the clubs don't need to compromise with the music, as much as they do here in Seattle.

I heard a group at the "Blues" room at House of Blues. That band was so stale, they probably wouldn't last very long here. Very "Disney-fied", to quote Mark Hoffman, author of "Moanin' At Midnight." The next night or so, I then proceeded to Kingston Mines, to hear Eddie Shaw and the Wolf Gang. I'm telling you right now, Eddie sounded as good as when I heard him with Howlin' Wolf at Sicks' Stadium, right here in Seattle in 1975. Kingston Mines has two stages, so when they change acts, everyone goes into the adjoining room. When I left around 4:30 AM, the place still was packed with about 400 blues fans. Lots of younger folks, mind you.

John Stephan and Eddie Shaw

I visited Twist Turner's new studio - fabulous, indeed! Originally from Seattle, Twist moved to Chicago about 25 years ago, and has made quite a name for himself as a drummer, producer, and recording engineer. Try to top that! His latest release by ZZ Hill, Jr. , "Goin' To Mississippi," is up for some major awards. Check out Twist at

Chicago has always been special to me, as my father, uncle and aunt lived in the Maxwell Street area from 1928-1934. I hung out on Maxwell Street in 1972, when it was still intact as the Sunday street musician/flea market mecca. it's long gone, now, but anybody who tries to tell you that the blues is dead should spend some time in Chicago. Granted, most of the gigs are in the outlining area, but that's merely an indication of the cost of rent in town - a typical phenomenon all around this great land of ours.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Washington Blues Society benefit tonight!

Halloween occuring last night had to be a good thing for all of the Halloween maniacs, right? Well, for everyone that partied like a rock star and maybe passed out in their Sarah Palin costume, here's some good news - the Washington Blues Society is exteding Halloween one more night! That's right, you can attend the WBS benefit at the Salmon Bay Eagles (5216 20th Avenue NW, in Ballard) tonight, and please do wear your costume. Live music will be provided by Jeff & the Jet City Fliers.

Poster created by Phil Chesnut.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Now wasn't that a party?!

KT & Jimmie Jean Benefit Show - 9/14/08 at the Salmon Bay Eagles Club

Our long time friends Jimie Jean and Kirk (KT) Tuttle were recently diagnosed respectively with pancreatic cancer and advanced liver disease. Like many American citizens, they are under-insured - KT is a veteran, so he can go to the VA, but Jimie doesn't have any insurance. I had been trying to get the OK from KT to throw a benefit for them, but he kept putting me off until Sheri Humphres interceded and we got the green light to proceed. Sheri is the organizational machine behind the successful annual Jam for Cans benefit hosted by her husband, saxophonist Raven Humphres.

The show went off without a hitch from 3:00 PM until 12:00 AM on September 14th at the Salmon Bay Eagles Club in Ballard. Nine bands (plus Uncle Ray Varner, Duffy Bishop, and Chris Carlson from Portland, OR) donated their time and talents to the show, and total collections (including cover charges, silent acution, food, and donations) amounted to about $8,000! I am sooo impressed with the love and generosity shown by everyone that participated in this event, including all you fans!!

Here's a special thanks shoutout to the following folks:

Sheri Humphres - The Woman Behind the Curtain
Don and the staff of the Salmon Bay Eagles Club
The Kitchen Crew - Spaghetti feed
Phil Chesnut - WBS print ad and event poster
Uncle Ray Varner - Master of Ceremonies
Conrad Ormsby - Backline drumset and floor monitor
Billy Reed - Backline keyboards
Tim Sherman and John Marshall - Backline guitar amps
Rob Moitoza - Backline bass amp and speakers
Little Bill & the Blue Notes
Sweet Talkin' Jones & the Muscletones
Chris Stevens' Surf Monkeys
Becki Sue & Her Big Rockin' Daddies (with John Marshall)
The Crossroads Band
The John Stephan Band (with John Marshall)
All Stars & No Stripes (with Duffy Bishop, Chris Carlson, and LJ Porter)
Paul Green & Straight Shot
Duffy Bishop & Chris Carlson

The band all came to play, and the standing room only crowd was treated to smokin' hot performances all around, including a memorable set by Duffy Bishop and Chris Carlson with All Stars & No Stripes. The day was really like a family reunion, with many musicians and fans getting reaquainted with each other, sometimes after many years. I just wish David Brewer could have been there!

Here's some photos from the show for ya'll:

Nitelife. Yep, that's Leslie "Star Drums" Milton! - Photo by Phil Chesnut.

MC Uncle Ray Varner and John Marshall. Photo by Phil Chesnut.

Sweet Talkin' Jones & the Muscletones

Chris Stevens' Surf Monkeys - Photo by Phil Chesnut.

Uncle Ray Varner and Duffy Bishop.

The show poster, created by Phil Chesnut.

Paul Green & Straight Shot - Photo by Phil Chesnut

Super blues fans Dave and Pam Konsa.

Vocalist LJ Porter and guitarists Fat James and Mark Whitman - Photo by Phil Chesnut.

Little Bill & the Blue Notes

The Kitchen Crew

John Lee and Steve Bailey from the Crossroads Band. Photo by Phil Chesnut.

The John Stephan Band with John Marshall - Photo by Phil Chesnut.

John Marshall and Becki Sue.

A lotta talent digging Sweet Talkin' Jones & the Muscletones.

The one and only Duffy Bishop and Chris Carlson. Photo by Phil Chesnut.

Guitar slingers Chris Stevens and Rod Cook.

Becki Sue & Her Big Rockin' Daddies with John Marshall - Photo by Phil Chesnut.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

David Brewer's "Ghost Dance"

Reviewed by Mark Dalton

David Brewer is an artist who defies convention. His new CD is an extension of his move to more solo performances in recent years (ease of touring reportedly being part of the advantage). But make no mistake here – there’s nothing “acoustic” about Brewer’s live performances, or about his approach on this CD! The absence of bass or drums here doesn’t mean the tunes rock any less - Brewer’s music is still centered around his big, fat, electric guitar sound and his driving sense of rhythm.

Brewer takes great pride in his Native American heritage (if you don’t know the history of the “Ghost Dance” in those desperate last days of the plains wars, I suggest you check it out – part of the story is included in the CD liner notes) and this music is firmly rooted in the land we continue to uneasily occupy together, transcending genres, all songs that Brewer has made totally his own. Music of North America – strong, plain, honest, straight ahead music, accurately reflecting the man who makes it.

The recording is well done here – Brewer plays all guitars, in layers, often with a flat-top guitar on the bottom, and electric rhythm laid over that, and those patented soaring lead guitar solos over the top. Vocals are right up front, with vocal harmony tracks coming in at times. Tambourine and various shakers and percussion are woven into the sound at times, but the driver for this music is always guitar; that from-the-elbow kind of rhythm–playing that Don Wilson of the Ventures modeled so well for musicians of our generation. This kind of one-man-plays-it-all project is tricky – I’ve heard CDs done this way that sound stiff and artificial – but Brewer’s CD has an integrated, organic feel to it that works throughout.

None of the songs on this CD were originally written by Brewer. The tunes range from a Chuck Berry classic, “You Can’t Catch Me” (the one about the “Airmobile”) to the old C&W favorite “Crazy Arms,” to more recent songs by Greg Allman and Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top. All of these tunes are well suited to Brewer’s eclectic style, and they all sound perfectly well-worn, like David’s been living these songs, and life they describe, for as long as any of us can remember. And you know what? That’s the truth, right there!

Originally from Nebraska, Mark Dalton moved to Seattle in the early '70s. He is an accomplished bassist and stalwart bluesman. He currently plays with Chris Stevens' Surf Monkeys. Photo by Ronda Lee.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

A few words about basses…

By Mark Dalton

Mike asked me to write a piece about my basses, and specifically about ace instrument maker and former Seattleite Steve Davis and the “Tall Cool One” basses he makes. This seemed like a good idea for something to write about – it had never occurred to me, although people come up to me at gigs fairly often (usually other bass players) and ask about my basses (whichever one of the four I happen to be playing at the time), and I’m always happy to talk about them.

I owned only one bass for the first 20 years of my professional career, and I’ve still got it, but it is stowed away somewhere nice and safe and I take it out to a gig about once a year. It’s a 1959 Fender Precision Bass that I got in a swap deal with the original owner in 1965. It’s a sweet ax, with great tone and a nice neck. I’ve had the same set of strings on it for over 20 years too; big heavy flatwounds, of course, and they are completely dead – no twang left whatsoever. Just a good solid deep-throated thump. I remember reading an interview with Donald “Duck” Dunn (of Booker T, Otis Redding and Blues Brothers fame), and he was talking about how he broke the G string on his Precision (part of set he’d had on there for 17 years at the time, as I recall), and he just burst into tears at the thought of having to break in a new string, or worse, a new set of strings!

People started coming up to me at gigs after awhile and looking at this old bass with such lust in their eyes (old Precisions are rapidly increasing in value) that it got kind of scary – so I got another one – a Mexican Precision, really well made (I tried out a bunch of them), with a nice straight neck and thin frets that was really close to my 59, for about $300 bucks in around 1992. I set it up the same as my other one, low action, fat flats, and it sounded almost as good. And I didn’t have to worry so much losing my old one and the history we shared.

A couple years after that, I started getting interested in five string basses – both because they had an extra low string, and because I heard a few that had advanced electronics – big fat active pickups that captured thick overtones – I was listening to a funk band playing right before us – Guitar Slim at that time - at the Bite of Seattle, and the sound of this guys five-string was amazing – the sound was so fat that individual notes sounded almost like chords. So I found one I liked and played it exclusively for several years (once I figured out how to integrate that additional string). Five strings also have a slightly longer neck than regular electric basses – gives the strings a little tighter feel, and, for a guy with big hands, the longer scale felt just right. I still have it, and I still play it every now and then.

Here’s where Steve Davis came in. Steve used to live up around North Bend, and he used to come out and hear Guitar Slim a lot. He and Pat Chase, our guitar player, got to be friends, and he made some cabinets for Pat’s house in Snoqualmie that were really nice. Steve is a wood worker and furniture maker by trade and he does very fine work. So it came as no surprise to Pat when Steve talked about making a guitar some day. The surprise came when Steve actually did make Pat a guitar – a gorgeous instrument in Pat’s favored Stratocaster design, but a custom-shop instrument all the way, including “Guitar Slim” inlaid in mother-of-pearl on the fretboard.

So it was somewhere around 1999, we were playing the Pike Market Street Fair when Steve came over on a break, and said “Marcus, I’ve been thinking… how would you like me to try my hand at building you a bass?” Well, what do you say to that? “HELL YES!” is what you say. Especially after he explained the deal to me – I help him with the design, as this was the first bass he’d attempted, and I buy the pickups and hardware, and he kicks in the wood and labor. At this point, I’m looking up into the heavens with my head swimming - as middleweight champ Rocky Graziano used to say, “somebody up there likes me!”

So Steve came over to my house and swarmed over the basses I had, with rulers and micrometers… Whaddya like about this one? How about this one? What body style do you like? What scale do you like? (I opted for the long scale, which at the time was rare for a four-string bass.) What color do you want? (As it happens, I had a copy of a great coffee table book called “Blue Guitar” that had a custom guitar with exactly the blue finish I wanted. Steve contacted the guy that made the guitar in the book, and got that exact finish for the bass – this is the lengths that he will go to get things right!)

The Tall Cool One

Over the next couple of years I would get tantalizing glimpses of this work in progress via E-mailed photos (Steve, by this point, had moved to New Mexico, where he was making custom furniture for the likes of Robert Redford.) And then, one lovely spring day, the Blue Bass arrived. I picked it up, plugged it in, and it was like I’d been playing it for years immediately – because it had everything I liked built in from the beginning! Big, active Bartolini pickups (I’m sorry, but once you get used to these, going back to a Fender Precision is difficult, if not impossible in the long run), neck-through-the-body construction for amazing sustain and a solid feel, and a beautiful finish. It also had a nameplate on it that said “Tall Cool One” – a national hit song for the Wailers, Mike Lynch’s nickname for me since the early-80’s Bluestars days, and now the resonant name of the Davis bass design.

I love my Blue Bass, and more recently, Steve finished a sister instrument for me – “The Red Bass.” She is really a beauty – refined, sleek, cut away in all the right places, a pleasure to hold onto and play! The Red Bass has an EMG pickup (my choice again), and getting the sound just right on her is still a work in progress (I had heard great things about the EMG, but it is… different). The bottom line is that this beautiful bass plays just great.

Red bass - in the shop

Avert your eyes!!

I’ve had tremendous good fortune in the people I’ve met and became friends with throughout my musical adventures, and I’m here to tell you, the people around you, supporting you, educating you, giving you the gift of their friendship – this makes all the difference in the world of making music. Steve Davis is one fine instrument maker, and one hell of a good man!

Originally from Nebraska, Mark Dalton moved to Seattle in the early '70s. He is an accomplished bassist and stalwart bluesman. He currently plays with Chris Stevens' Surf Monkeys. Photo by Ronda Lee.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Tom and Becki Sue tie the knot.

Becki Sue & Her Big Rockin' Daddies guitarist Tom "T-Boy" Boyle and vocalist Rebekah "Becki Sue" Delk were married on August 30th. The marriage, officiated by the Rev. Dave Brown, took place at Tom's parents' very nice home on the shore of Lake Steilacoom in Lakewood, Washington.

Tom and Becki

Lake Steilacoom

After the ceremony, the guests had some lunch (great chicken wings, by the way) and then the band played some tunes before Tom and Becki Sue cut the wedding cake. I had to split about that time, but I hear that the band played some more that afternoon. Congratulations Tom and Becki!

Becki Sue & Her Big Rockin' Daddies - Left to right: Tom Boyle, Jim King, Becki Sue, Jeff Hayes, and Les White.