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Saturday, February 18, 2006

Blues Hell/Blues Heaven

The Mystery Band's recent gig at C.J. Arthur's was "blues hell." The place was nearly empty. More than half of the patrons sat at the bar with their backs to the band. There was no stage - we set up at the front of the restaurant on the floor. The sound system did not include a vocal monitor, so Mr. G could not hear himself very well. Most of the regulars in the Mystery Band had other commitments, so I back-filled with other great musicians that I know, but this version of the Mystery Band had never played together before. We were playing with a new bass player - he had never played with ol' Mr. G. He was a good player, but he was a little timid, so our time was a little bit squishy. But we didn't sound awful. Our comp was tied to C.J. Arthur's revenue during our sets, so we got paid $70 for over 3 hours of effort - I came out of pocket to make sure the guys got a decent payday. There were a few redeeming aspects of the gig - my lovely 13-year old daughter could come to the smoke-free, family-friendly venue. My business partner and his wife live in the neighborhood, so they showed up. A nice couple that I know from the Evanston Quaker Meeting also stopped by. So it wasn't a total loss, but it's not going to make the highlight reel of the Mystery Band's history.

Then I had a "blues heaven" experience last Monday night. Joe Filisko convinced the great blues harmonica pioneer, Billy Boy Arnold, to come to the blues harp class at the Old Town School of Folk Music. Billy Boy learned from Sonny Boy Williamson I (the original, John Lee Williamson, who wrote "Good Morning Little Schoolgirl" and dozens of other blues classics). Billy Boy also was in Bo Diddley's band in the 1950's. He is a great songwriter and penned a few classics himself ("I Wish You Would" is probably his most famous hit). He shared memories and stories with us for an hour, played a tune for us, and went out for beers with us afterward. I was in starry-eyed hero worship mode. Billy Boy must be well into his 70's now, but he is still full of energy and doesn't look a day over 50. For us blues harp nuts, hanging with Billy Boy is like a bunch of dedicated weekend golfers getting a chance to hang out with Jack Nicklaus. Or a bunch of ex-high school hoops players having beers with Kareem Abdul Jabar. For members of the blues harp cult, Billy Boy Arnold is huge.

Joe Filisko is one of the "hub people." A large group of cool folks are directly connected to Joe - he is the hub of the harmonica world. When you know Joe, you are one degree of separation from every important harmonica player on the planet. Some people might say that the phrase "important harmonica player" is an oxymoron, but I would never say that....

Friday, February 10, 2006

Running the Blues Jam

Mr. G and the Mystery Band was the house band for the blues jam at Bill's Blues Bar on Tuesday, January 31. This correspondent was the host, which means I collected the names and performance capabilities of the jammers, called them up, and set them down after their time on stage was through. We had a managable number of musicians - some folks even got to play twice. There were a number of observers, and some of them were drinking hard for a Tuesday night.

The reason to run a jam is to assist in the creation of a few magical musical moments. I have been to jams where there was no magic; the combination of inadequate talent and lack of jam leadership turned the proceedings into the aural equivalent of the dry heaves - painful and unproductive. But we caught some breaks last Tuesday. There were some fine musicians in the house (including the members of the Mystery Band) and we even were graced by the presence of a minor blues celebrity - Mr. Sammy Fender.

Sammy Fender has been on the Chicago blues scene for years, one of the raucous West Side guitar monsters. His hair is grey now, but his energy level is still high. The volume knob on his amp and guitar are also set on "high" - he is an ear-breaking player. Sammy has carries a lot of music in his head and he can get a band of jammers into a hellacious groove.

We were also lucky to have Steve Hart in the house - a bass player, tuba player and drummer of prodigious skill. Steve has a six-string electric bass (not the typical four-string instrument). He settled in with the three other players and laid down the nastiest funk bass line you ever heard in your life. The entire club snapped into the groove, and Steve's bandmates scrambled to give him the support he needed. It worked. Steve loooks like an old lefty with his greying pony tail and wire frame glasses, but the man is way too funky.

Bill's Blues Bar is beginning to feel like a true blues dive now. It is in its third year of existence and it doesn't look new anymore. Evanston still lets folks smoke in the bars (two neighboring suburbs banned smoking, thus sending the nicotine fiends to Evanston establishments like Bill's Blues). The smell of old cigarette smoke and stale beer is beginning to permeate Bill's Blues - it isn't an unpleasant aroma, really, and it sure does fit with the down and dirty blues vibe.

The Mystery Band will play at C.J. Arthur's in Wilmette IL tonight, February 10th. C.J. Arthur's is the antithesis of Bill's Blues. It is clean, no smoking allowed, family friendly, etc. Wilmette is a pretty tony suburb - the Mystery Band has never been booked in a town like this. We might flop. Guess I will have to tone down some of my XXX-rated blues songs.......