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July 13, 2007

Hayward/Russell City Blues Fest, Sat. July 7, 2007


“How long, baby how long,
Has that evening train been gone?
How long, how how long, baby how long?

Went to the station, didn't see no train.
Down in my heart, I felt an aching pain.
How long, how how long, baby how long?”

The hair rose on the back of my neck and I was transported back to those flatlands and the sound of the IC train trains in the night. Pinetop Perkins took me way back to Down Home, Daddy’s 78s, Daddy noodling on the piano, the juke boxes in the stores and restaurants, WLAC in the night. I don’t even know whose version I heard first, Ray Charles or B.B. King, or Jimmy rushing or Joe Turner?

“How long, Baby how long
Must I keep my, my watch in pawn?
How long, how how long, Baby how long?

It’s a Blues Festival Rule: It’s either too hot or too cold. As I drove south out of the interior valleys of Sonoma County the Pacific was striking back against the hot air of the interior of California. Pearly fog clouds were scudding in through the Golden Gate and the low passes of the coastal mountains and the air was fresh and cool and the sky was gray. From experience I knew the ripples in the clouds meant they’d break up and as I went south the clouds began to break up. The sun was shining and warming in Hayward as I pulled into the municipal garage.

Grabbing my pack I heard the Gospel opening act sounding mighty good and the “festival music mode” came over me. The ticket sellers and takers at this festival are always fun and easy to flirt or josh with. My pack was somehow checked without a big deal being made. I slipped easily into the front grass as the place wasn’t packed. I’d been afraid of this: the fantastic lineup was made up of stars of Chicago that a lot of casual fans didn’t know. The crowd would grow over the day, but it was never a mob scene.

The Gospel group “endurance” has a powerful pair of lead singers and they were going hard at pumping the crowd with great success. They did fine inspirational numbers with festival-appropriate low denominational content and stirred the crowd. I kind of kicked myself for being late to their show.

Craig Horton in a smashing yellow gig suit got right to the point with the blues. His guitar playing was really biting and he did some of his best tunes. Fronting a great band of the mighty Henry Oden on Bass, veteran Steve Gannon on guitar, and “Peanuts” on drums it was a lot of fun and the crowd responded to “Elizabeth”, “I’m Leaving You Baby”, and his other songs, especially “Find Another Fool”. A great version of “Every Day I Have the Blues” kind of set the mood of being in the grand tradition of the Blues the whole day would have. Craig had that Arkansas juke joint feel.

Next up was one of the artists I’d made the long drive for: Taildragger. I’d wanted to see him for a while. I’d read of him playing the bars of Chicago and got that he was one of that second tier of Chicago blues performers who’s claim to fame was showmanship. “Howlin’ Wolf is said to have given him his nickname (the
Wolf wasn’t using it at the time). I was pretty sure this was the only chance I’d get to see him. A wonderfully powerful and joking YouTube video of Taildragger working a Chicago bar (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Aw2FyVzj3Kw) had further whetted my appetite to see him. Resplendent in a taupe Western cut suit and cowboy hat; he made it clear that ham with red eye gravy was on the menu today. The man on the video had come to perform Live And On-Stage.

Having moved around the stage and schmoosed the crowd with the mic as the Sons of the Blues set up behind him (more on them in a minute), his grandfatherly body just a bit stiff, he was handed a folding chair and he sat for the next few songs. The opener had a really, really deep Muddy Waters/1950s Chicago pulse, the band was slamming it. Taildragger sang, “It’s So Easy To Be Misled.” The pulse never let up. After a few fine numbers Taildragger proved you can’t keep a natural ham down and proceeded to crowd walk with the wireless mic. “My Head is Bald” got a big workout and the Taildragger received the kind of laughing acclaim he came for.

The Sons of the Blues Reunion were Billy Branch’s band at the start of his climb to fame and what a band! Lurrie Bell and Carl Weathersby are one hell of a pair of guitar players and the other members were also Chicago stars with Nick Charles on bass, Mose Rutues on drums, and someone I hadn’t heard of, Ariyo on piano. Ariyo (http://www.gapersblock.com/detour/blues_with_a_feeling/ Sumito Ariyoshi ) is Japanese, played in Jimmy Rogers’ band, and now plays a lot with Billy Branch. I’m impressed; he played the rhythm parts and let the guitar players and Billy roam.

Who was I going to watch was my problem—Billy on harp? Lurrie on really deep rhythm guitar with switching off to some leads? Carl Weathersby playing leads, showing off, playing slide guitar some times, switching off to rhythm? I tried to watch everybody all at the same time, I was afraid I’d miss something. I’ve wanted to see Lurrie Bell a long time and here he was. Carl Weathersby is a favorite of mine. And since seeing
Billy Branch last year I just can’t get enough of his harp playing (I’m not an automatic harmonica fancier).

The SOBs stayed up on the stand and backed Big Time Sarah, another mainstay of the Blues in Chicago. Sarah made it clear from the beginning that she wasn’t the shy retiring type. A huge alto voice delivered from deep in her trunk (just the way vocal teachers tell you) delivered “Wang Dang Doodle” and other big songs like “I Don’t Need no Man (telling me what to do)” were in the classic style going all the way back to Ma Rainey. “I’m a Woman” was hot too. I guess I’d really missed something the night before at the Bistro Jam since she said she wasn’t gonna do “Hootchy Kootchy Woman” like she had the night before -since there were kids in the audience. I still had to fan myself after she was done.

I was beginning to see that there were simply too many great musicians on stage at the same time for those big moments to happen for each. Lurrie Bell was powerful, yet looked like he was a bit restrained by the format. Carl Weathersby was also not really pushing for any sustained solos or front time; there simply wasn’t space for too much of that. I contented myself with the knowledge I was at least being able to see them at all, and enjoyed those moments when they were able to bring their best to the fore.

John Primer was another one I’d made the long drive for and it was completely worth it. A veteran of the Chicago bars and Willie Dixon’s, Muddy Waters’ and Magic Slim’s bands, John was just as witty and pointed in his playing and singing as I’d hoped for. Backed by members of the Caravan of Allstars, he had what was probably the best set of the day with a solo performance that was all just plain blues done right. Songs, singing, and guitar playing -all put together just right. I’d wanted to see him for a long time and he delivered. Great stage presence without hamming it up, he has a wry way or bringing it to the audience, just like he knows and we know that it’s all life’s joke on us all. I want to see him more. This was probably the best set of the day; -it was the one that was the least musically crowded—though the level of the day’s sets was very, very high throughout. The great Willie “Big Eyes” Smith on drums, and Henry Oden on bass enhanced the high quality of this set. A great rhythm section.


“How long, Baby how long
Must I keep my, my watch in pawn?
How long, how how long, Baby how long?

In the open back stage area a tent had been put up as the Artist’s Lounge “Green Room”. Many of the musicians had gone in and out of the tent. This Festival has no real restricted backstage area, it’s always been open and friendly and the artists hang out and talk to people a lot. The “green room” tent is near the beer and food concessions and there’s a lot of through traffic. A lot of the musicians talked to friends and sold CDs and signed autographs around the stone sides of the little garden/fountain the stage projecting back out from under from the stage scaffolding.

Pinetop Perkins had been quietly delivered to the green room tent from a car and was in a wheel chair. Pinetop had been on the road for several days and had just flown down from Portland. He rested in the tent; most of the other musicians went to the backstage sides of the stage. When it was time for the next set his manager Pat Morgan wheeled him out of the tent and started for the stage. Pinetop looked limp, very worn, 93 years old, and worth worrying about. He had on a nice suit and hat. As his manager wheeled him toward the stage two fans of the hyper-enthusiastic type fastened upon him and didn’t listen to the manager’s protests that Pinetop needed to be left alone for a few minutes to gather energy to play. The fans were oblivious. “I just want to talk to Pinetop! I think he’s wonderful!” The manager’s protests went unheeded, “I just want to talk with Pinetop!” Both peppy fans appeared to be among those for whom enthusiasm is everything and discretion is meaningless, like people in high school mascot outfits. Pinetop gave a gentle smile and turned even father inward.

Managing to get disengaged, Pinetop was wheeled to the very start of the stage ramp, slowly pulled himself erect as he was announced, and carefully made his way up the short ramp and was slightly helped to the grand piano.

From this I thought that I was going to see the ghost of a legend. I was happy for even this, but I had no expectations of anything beyond seeing him and honoring his past accomplishments.

I was wrong.

From the first note of the swinging intro “Chicken Shack,” even over the crowd noise it was clear he still had his touch. His hands were quick and fast and the years rolled back.

With “How Long Blues” Pinetop made the hair stand up on the back of my neck and the sound was one I thought I’d never hear again; the sound that stretches back to the Depression. The sound of the “piano professors.” Pinetop has a light touch and his time and phrasing are outstanding. His handling of ‘stride’ left hand technique and bluesy dissonant right hand technique was impressive.

The ‘band number’ was “Got My Mojo Working” and was a lot of fun. The Sons of the Blues did a fine job backing and keeping out of the way of the rapidly expanding adulation of Pinetop.

“How Long? How Long?
Must I keep my watch in pawn?
How long, how how long, baby how long?”

For me, it brought up the sound of the Illinois Central blowing in the night on its way south to Memphis or north to Chicago when I was a kid, --that lonesome faraway sound. Pinetop’s voice is down to a mellow purr, but his phrasing is as good as it gets. Pinetop led the band through five or six strong numbers never flagging in the least. The crowd went nuts. It was really great stuff.

At some signal (Pinetop looked a bit regretful at stopping) the music stopped and the Birthday Party/Honors began. A large number of people wanted to be on stage and have their picture taken with Pinetop and there were about eight proclamations from every political body in the State of California, even Ahnold. The Coca-Cola distributor gave Pinetop a Coke clock. A couple of local politicians made speeches with all the usual words. Pictures were taken of all possible combinations and sincere smiles were the order of the day. Pinetop sat in his chair with a gentle amused look on his face and was gracious. He looked like he knew what the drill was. When it was time to go he was ready and was gone. Thanks Pinetop, maybe I’ll get to see you again where you play and I listen.

Billy Branch and The Sons of the Blues had a two-hour set, which had spotlights on Billy Branch, Lurrie Bell, Carl Weathersby, Kenny Neal, and Joe Louis Walker. I’m a fan of all of them and I enjoyed them all—and of course there was too little time and inevitably too many on stage.

I was already familiar with Carl Weathersby and he sure can play a whole lot of fine guitar. I remain convinced that there hasn’t been a CD yet that’s caught what he really can do. Carl seeing that there were so many people on stage did little fills and used his slide to vary up the sound, as well as contributing solid rhythm. His sense of humor and

Lurrie Bell made a convert out of me and in the very few spaces available to him played incandescent licks. His rhythm guitar playing was totally in the pocket and had that deep Chicago feel that’s getting rare these days. Lurrie didn’t look very comfortable with the mass herd on stage, but played enough to show I gotta hear more! I love that he plays with his fingers (like Carl), the way I first learned; wish I could play like him. He has that intensity.

Billy Branch is a wonderful harp player with a smooth tone that really appeals. A fine singer he has that “leadership on stage” quality that goes with the ‘harpslinger’ harp belt he wears. Watching him switch harp keys easily where other harpists are digging around for the right key showed me an organized guy. Then he’d play a great solo and he was so much more. Another musician I want to see more of.

Kenny Neal played one song on harp and sang and was his fine self, it’s good to see him looking good. Joe Louis Walker played some great guitar on stage and limited himself to a cameo while showing he can burn.

This was a fine festival day with so many top musicians on stage that all one can do is say “I’ll watch for them all to do their own three hour club gig.” There’s no way that this show could do more than whet the thirst and the appetite. Really, the best in the business were up there on stage and it was almost impossible to take it all in. I was sorry that family commitments would keep me from the Sunday Festival show.

As I carried my pack around the back of the stage toward my car, I passed Carl Weathersby politely waiting on a disheveled obsessed fan who obviously had to get every single performer’s signature on his festival poster. As I passed Carl I said, “I’m sorry Mr. Weathersby, I don’t have anything for you to sign and I already bought the CDs.” He gave me the “Get on witcha!” hand flip and we grinned at each other.

Posted by Rolfyboy6 at July 13, 2007 04:35 PM

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