Sunday, May 08, 2011

Steppin' Out

Last night, my wife and I went out for dining and music. Dinner was at Bernie's Southern Bistro, on NW Alberta, on Portland's east side. Great food, reasonably priced. Better to get reservations–they don't do lunch, but apparently have a happy hour starting at four p.m. We lucked out and got a table just before the rush arrived.

We had bleu cheese grits and barbecued shrimp and blackened salmon, and it was goood ...

Beer is only by the bottle, though they do have a liquor bar.

After dinner, we walked in the rain a block to the Alberta Rose Theater, for a tribute to blues legend Robert Johnson, today being the 100th year anniversary of his birth. He died at twenty-seven, and while the myth is a bit murky, likely his death was from drinking poisoned whiskey. Who gave it to him and why hasn't been nailed down: a jealous girlfriend or somebody's jealous husband? He apparently loved the ladies, high, wide, and everywhere. 


Murder ... ?

Johnson was a good guitar player, and the story goes that he went to the crossroads at midnight and made a deal with the Devil to get his chops.

White blues musicians discovered his small body of work on old 78 rpm records, lot of the British Invasion players worshipped the guy, but among black musicians, especially in the decades immediately after his death, the apparent response if asked about him would have been "Robert Who?" 

He was a player, but not limited to delta blues, and admired during his life for his ability to play other styles as much as the blues. He was, according to some musical history writers, only one among many who were as good–the early 1900's spawned a plethora of bluesmen (and women) and some of them lived long enough to be part of the blues revival that the British players helped bring about in the early sixties:

Son House, Elmore James, Skip James, Jessie Mae Hemphill, Charley Patton, Pine Top Perkins, Muddy Waters, Bucca White, Blind Lemon Jefferson–the list is long.

Why him in particular? Johnson had recordings, and he had the mystique–he lived fast and died young, and not a lot was known about him.

There are two known pictures of Johnson, and both are posted here. 

The concert itself was, we were to discover, divided into two parts. The first part consisted of players sitting down and playing lightly-amplified acoustic instruments. From Baby Grampa, who was a solo with a resonator guitar, and who tore it up; to Terry Robb and Laureen Sheehan, on guitar and mandolin, respectively, who really tore it up; to
Curtis Saldago, Joe McMurrian, Frank Goldwasser, Mary Flower, the cream of the local blues crop, with some crossover stuff by Little Sue. 

Most of these are serious blues folk, with all kinds of chops, and a joy to behold. 

The second set, after a break, the groups dialed up the volume to ten, Bob Shoemaker, Sassparilla, Woodbrain, and even Kung Pao Chicken, a jazz group who were great, but who didn't fit in. 

I love live music when it's done well, and the first half of this tribute was as good as any I've ever heard. At home, however, I can turn the volume down, and when a group overplays the room–this was a smallish theater venue, three hundred seats, and sold out, SRO–it literally becomes painful. Not just enough to turn down the hearing aids, you have to take them out and stuff something into your ears and even then, it's a visceral experience, you feel it in your bones.

When I was fifteen, I'd sit in front of the speaker and let it stream my hair. Not any more. 

Halfway through a number around eleven o'clock, with a drummer, guitarist, bass player and harmonica blasting the paint off the walls, we had to leave. A shame, because the players were good, they were just into a sonic assault that was, to us, unpleasant.

I know they knew there was more than one setting on the amp because a couple of them had played in the first set. 

When a deaf old guy thinks it's too loud? You know you are talking about injury-level decibels.

If we had left after the first set, it would have been a totally terrific experience, and if you ever have a chance to listen to the folks in the first group in an acoustic mode,  do so. And if you don't mind it loud, the second set was full of excellent players.

One odd thing I noticed. Portland is a big blues town, we have a festival here every summer, fills up downtown and the waterfront along the river, but there weren't any black singers or musicians last night. I dunno why–we do have some black folks here, though not many, and surely among them are some great blues artists. 

Maybe they were all busy elsewhere ...

1 comment:

Shady_Grady said...

Interesting post.
There is a generalization that black musicians/audiences are always interested in running to create the next big thing while white musicians/audiences have more interest in refining and redefining what's already passed.
That's changing somewhat I think.
Have you ever heard of the Carolina Chocolate Drops? I wrote a review of them here:

But by and large I don't think you're gonna find a HUGE black interest in what's considered at this point, hopelessly outdated music-which is also (rightly or wrongly) associated with really bad times and outmoded social relations.

As you mention Robert Johnson has become a Romantic Hero, when in real life the facts don't quite add up to that. His contemporaries, Muddy Waters, Skip James, Elmore James, Johnny Shines, Son House, etc certainly didn't see him as such or think of themselves that way. Just one of history's accidents that he is thought of in that way.

The volume issue is also interesting. I may have mentioned it before but Martha Bayles' book "Hole in Our Soul" has a lot to say on this.