Sunday, December 29, 2013

Three Nights of Blues and Old School R&B in St. Louis

(I didn't go out in St. Louis with the idea of writing about what I'd seen and heard, so I didn't take notes.  But what I saw and heard was worth recording somehow.  Here's the best I can do under the circumstances.  The way to find out what it was really like- head there yourself!)

I’ve never been to New Orleans (I’m saving it up) but I know about New Orleans-- that it’s a place famous for its musicians.  I know about Memphis, Nashville and Austin (though, come to think of it, I’ve never been to to a couple of those, either.) Everybody knows these places are music places, and still lively that way.

But I didn’t really know about St. Louis.  

Which is odd, considering that my hero and the lifelong object of my obsession hails from St. Louis, and considering that I associate the city names like Albert King, Miles Davis and Ann Peebles.  

But after a quick trip back to St. Louis this December-- one of several that I’ve taken in the last five years-- I’ve finally begun to scratch the surface and learn a little about the city’s still thriving Blues scene.  

In the course of three nights-- December 7, 10 and 11-- my wife and I saw five great performances by artists like Boo Boo Davis, Marquise Knox, Eugene Johnson, Kim Massie and Roland Johnson.  It was easy to do since all of them performed at two cool venues that sit across from each other a few blocks south of the Arch on South Broadway-- B.B.’s Soups, Jazz and Blues and Beale on Broadway.

I’d gone to St. Louis to see my old hero Chuck “one last time.”  (He keeps fooling me.)  But these two clubs-- and I’m sure there are a half a dozen more to add to the list-- are worth a trip to St. Louis all by themselves.  The drinks are big and cheap.  The food at B.B.’s is good.  The crowds ranged from boisterous on the weekend to intimate on a Wednesday.  The music was consistently stellar.

Every night we found a new mix of musicians, always with some crossover from a prior night.  Bassist Gus Thornton played for both Marquise Knox and Kim Massie.  Guitarist Stephen Martin backed up Massie and Roland Johnson.  Drummer Gerald Warren played with Eugene Johnson and stayed to provide beats for Kim Massie.  Keyboardist Robert Lohr was with Delta blues great Boo Boo Davis on Saturday night and on the following Wednesday crossed town to back Chuck Berry.  Eugene Johnson led his own group on Tuesday but also appears on  Marquise Knox’s newest cd.

I can’t pretend to know much about these musicians, (and I went to enjoy the music, not to take notes; I wish now I’d written a few things down) but bassist Gus Thornton provides an example of the depth of talent.  Watching him back up the remarkable Marquise Knox, I was struck by Thornton’s easygoing smile and the effortless way his fingertips touched the five strings of his bass to drive the songs.  A couple of days later Bob Lohr clued me into Thornton’s background playing bass for people like Albert King.  You can check it out yourself and read a good interview of the man HERE.   

Guitarist Stephen Martin, who played with Massie and Roland Johnson has a similarly angelic smile but plays devilishly good stuff on his pale blue Telecaster.  Massie was complimenting him on a new haircut when we saw them together.  You had to crane your neck to see him, tucked away in a corner behind Thornton, but you could hear every lick, down to the subtlest little bent “twing” that got drummer Gerald Warren laughing and nodding at the end of a song.  

And that’s one of the best parts: these musicians, who collect themselves in different groups every night, (or twice a night,) seem to really enjoy hearing and playing with each other.  In Memphis, on Beale Street, we saw some fine musicians putting on a fine show for us toursits, but at Beale on Broadway we saw fine musicians making music with and for each other.  Which works out fine for the audience.  

At the Marquise Knox show one young woman danced with half the men in the place, enticing them to all sorts of silly acts of lust which she then rejected with a grin.  Kim Massie brought out post-it notes and a vase to collect requests and big bills.  (She got plenty!)  Eugene Johnson invited a drummer he’d met in Europe to sit in.  The drummer, who took the sticks from Warren, might have regretted his decision about half way through “Brick House,” but it proved just how good the Warren and the other regular musicians are.  Another guy who took the stage before Roland Johnson’s set had better luck.  He borrowed Stephen Martin’s guitar and began to sing and strum a bit timidly.  We thought it was going to be a disaster, and one man made a face and laughed.  But the further he got, better it sounded, and one by one the musicians began to join him on stage.  Lew Winer, III, comedian of the group, played some wonderful sax, Eugene Johnson added bass, and Roland Johnson even tried to play the drums.  It was downright pretty.

As for the stars, dang!  To hear voices like Kim Massie’s and Roland Johnson’s from ten feet away restores a soul.  Both are great performers, too.  Johnson is as close as I’ll get, in attitude, to seeing Otis Redding alive, and Massie’s all attitude.  (To see Johnson and his band Soul Endeavor live, check out this clip of them playing at the Blues Deli in St. Louis's Soulard neighborhood.  Follow this Link!)  Between great songs Massie fires off wickedly dry one liners and singled me out for a cruelly shouted line questioning my manhood!  (It took a while to forgive her- but you can’t hold a grudge against a voice like that!)

(Here's a chance to hear her with a pretty well known drummer.)

Boo Boo Davis, who plays the first Saturday of every month at B.B.’s Soups, Jazz and Blues, was the old timer of this group, a veteran Delta Blues musician and drummer who helped nurture the current St. Louis blues scene back in the 1970s. B.B.‘s is a long, narrow place with a long bar that opens into a dining room and stage.  You can eat there, too.  When we arrived Davis, resplendent in black leather and bordello red, was seated at the front of the house just beneath the stage taking visits from audience members.  Boo Boo Davis was preceded on stage that night by singer and harmonica player Tom “Papa” Ray, who did a rhumba style “Summertime” on a very cold fall night backed by a group that included Robert Lohr on Piano, Nephew Davis on bass, Carlos Hughes on drums and Larry Griffen on guitar.  Then Boo Boo Davis, who alternates his deep growl of a voice with harmonica.  A man claiming to be his little brother sat whooping and hollering a few feet from us.  I decided his claim might be true when he said “the Wolf’s in the house” just before Davis launched into a startling imitation of Howlin’ Wolf.

When Davis’s first set was over we crossed the street to see and hear Marquise Knox.  At Beale on Broadway, the stage is right next to the front door, so as soon as you enter your are slammed with blues coming full force from a line of old guitar amps that seem to be stationed permanently against the back wall.  We paid our 7 dollars and sat on stools right next to the door while Knox, just 21 years old but completely mesmerizing, leaned forward to do a medley classics and originals.  (One song takes the title of a Billy Peek classic, “Can a White Man Play the Blues?” and makes it relevant to Knox by asking if a young man can.)  (The answer, in both cases, is that if it’s the right one, yes indeed.)  Here's a sample.

I don’t know if Chuck Berry will get me back to St. Louis again, but I know I’ll be back, and that when I return, I’ll go wherever these folks are playing.  And then I’ll head down the river to New Orleans.  ‘Cause I haven’t been there, yet.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

More About Eric "Two Scoops" Moore (The Interview!)

Something about piano players- they all seem to be good writers, too.  On my other website, goheadon, you can find wonderful "interviews" of Robert LohrDaryl Davis and Robert Baldori.  Since these interviews are done by e-mail, it takes a bit of commitment on the other side.  (Davis, an author, sent 12 single spaced pages!)  Well, here we go again, with Eric "Two Scoops" Moore: boogie-woogie and blues pianist, sideman, poet, songwriter, dishwasher, housepainter and husband.  The husband and storyteller parts are merged perfectly, since each story leads back to wife Amy.  But on the way you'll learn about blues, food and geography, and time spent hanging with people like Pinetop, Buddy, Luther, and "Earring" George.

How long have you been in Seattle?  How'd you wind up here?

In 1995 I was playing with Luther on the 3rd annual Ultimate Rhythm And Blues Cruise.
I spotted a hot little blues mama that seemed to be having more fun than everyone else.

Later I saw her standing behind a table with Washington Blues Society literature, (this week-long cruise was the 1st week in a 12 week tour that went from Boston to Florida to  Dallas  up to Tulsa back down to Houston then to Phoenix  LA, San Diego, Santa Cruz, Seattle, Vancouver, Edmonton Red Deer, Calgary, Ketchum, Idaho, Denver, Vail, Soiux Falls, Kansas City, Lincoln, Chicago, Dearborn, Buffalo and back to Boston.)

I told Amy I would be in Seattle in a few weeks and she gave me her phone number. When I got to  Seattle I called her from the Backstage and she drove from West Seattle   to Ballard to see me.  Now, on the cruise I couldn’t seem to pry  her away from dancing with Taj Mahal  long enough to notice me, but there at the Backstage on February 14,  I asked her if she had a Valentine and she said no, so I kissed her.

Exactly a year later on February 14, 1996, we were married at the original House of Blues in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Within a year I quit Luther’s band and moved to Seattle.

That is how I got to Seattle.

Where did you grow up?  And how did you get into boogie-woogie and blues?  How did you learn to play?

They tell me that when I was a baby I used to wave my arms like I was conducting when music played. It probably started when I was watching Lawrence Welk or Mitch Miller on TV.  My earliest memory is singing “Lazybones” and “Witch Doctor ”oo ee oo ahh ahh ting tang walla walla bing bang”.  Those songs were in my older sister’s 45 collection. She took piano lessons and I usually figured out by ear what she was practicing.  By the time I took piano lessons, it was impossible to teach me to read music because I could already play by ear or at least I thought I could. I couldn’t play anything right of course because I had to make up the ending which always sounded right to me, but the teacher could tell that I wasn’t reading. I never practiced but I always played. It didn’t look good for a successful music career.  It still doesn’t, but I’m still playing!

One thing that’s good about playing your own songs is that they can’t tell if you’re playing them wrong. There’s nothing like making up a song while playing it and that’s what the blues is all about. In my 1st piano lesson the old witch explained  that the strings are  like human voices that can hear each other and resonate with sympathetic vibrations.  I discovered the damper pedal; it turned the piano into an organ. It felt like I had a heavenly choir at my fingertips.

Tell us a little about your days touring with other blues artists.

I’ve been the low man on a lot of totem poles:

I was a dishwasher who wanted to flip hamburgers.

I was a land surveyor but I only held the “dumb end” of the tape. I had to hold the 0 end over a point in the ground with my thumb through a metal loop, while the smart guy pulled as hard as he could to accurately measure the distance. I always had a sore thumb, but at least I didn’t have to deal with any numbers. Finally, I refused to enter a patch of poison ivy and lost that job. I never did get to look through the transit.

I got a job for a painting contractor; I couldn’t paint at first, but I could carry and set up a 40-foot ladder by myself. They sent me up to paint the third-floor windows with a caulking gun, a putty knife and a can of paint and said, “Don’t come down until the windows are done and if you fall off the ladder, you’re fired before you hit the ground.” After working there for a few years, I wanted a raise from $6 an hour to $8.  They offered me $7 so I quit. Someone had offered me $3,000 to paint a great big house on my own ladder. From then on, I was painting on my own. 

In the meantime, I was spending all the money I was making running around with “Earring” George. He was a high maintenance bluesman.  Every night I would buy him a pack of Newports, a pint of Seagram’s gin and a lottery ticket. We would go around from club to club.  Any time a major blues star was in town, George just had to show his face and we would end up sitting in. They were so happy to see that he was still alive! I’m talking about people like Buddy Guy, James Cotton, KoKo Taylor, and Zora Young. (George used to drive Zora Young to the blues jams in Chicago when she was a kid.) One time we were sitting backstage with Buddy Guy, Pinetop Perkins, and Big Daddy Kinsey. Some clown walks in and starts to tell George to leave. Pinetop Perkins leapt out of his seat and yelled, “That’s Earring George!” I won’t say who the clown was, but he knows who he is.

One person who puts up with no disrespect is Luther “Guitar Junior” Johnson. It’s a joy to watch him put arrogance in its place. One time in Belgium, they tried to put us up in the middle of nowhere on the outskirts of the city. When Luther saw the rooms, which were more like cells, he cursed a blue streak and threw the room keys down on the sidewalk at the feet of the promoter and said, “Take me to a hotel downtown where I can get something to eat or take me back to the airport.”  We were immediately whisked to a hotel downtown.  Working for Luther “Guitar Junior” Johnson was an ear-opening experience.

One time, we landed in Morocco a day early and there was no one at the airport to greet us. But there were lots of guys with machine guns standing around with their fingers on the triggers.  We checked into the Holiday Inn Crowne Plaza in downtown Casablanca. We all had to sign for our rooms; I was worried that I would have to pay for it myself. Luther said, “Don’t worry, they’ll pay.” They paid! That night “Sax” Gordon and I were exploring the Casbah and some guy kept bumping into Gordon saying, “American hi-karate.”  We kept walking and Gordon noticed that his passport was gone from his jacket pocket. We immediately grabbed the guy and started frisking him like two cops would, looking for the passport. I was afraid to let his hands go for fear that he would produce a knife. Just then 4 or 5 of his friends came running up to us saying, “You dropped these.” They were holding up Gordon’s passport and room key card. They gave us back the passport and the key and we gave them back their friend.  He had been pulling things out of Gordon’s jacket and dropping them on the sidewalk as his friends followed.  

Luther is like a brother to me. It always cracked him up when I would say, “This is the best food I’ve ever had!” whenever it was free.  But the food was usually really good – they treated us like Kings most places we went. In Paris, we played the Lionel Hampton Jazz Club in Le Meriden hotel, for a two week stay. We could get half-price in the hotel restaurant but even half-price was too expensive. We would have had to pay $30 to eat at the $60 buffet. 

Finding affordable food in Paris is difficult. I went to an outdoor market and saw three chickens; one was Fr.55 one was Fr.45 and one was Fr.15. The two expensive ones looked identical. I asked what the difference was and the Frenchman said, “The expensive one is better.”  The one that was Fr.15 was the scrawniest little chicken I ever saw, but it was the right price. The sign above it said “Couquette.”  I thought to myself, “Hmm, this must be the kind that they make chicken croquettes out of.”  It tasted kind of funny, so I gave the other half to the drummer. He thought it tasted funny too. The next day, I walked back to the market and I saw the other side of the sign. It said “Pidgeon.”  I finally broke down and bought myself a meal in the hotel restaurant. I ordered beef stew. It was the only beef stew I ever had with skin and fur still on the meat.  Even a quarter pounder with cheese cost $5.  My favorite meal in Paris was a head of frisse’ lettuce in an ice bucket with oil and vinegar and a loaf of French bread.

They sure are crazy about the blues in Europe. Luther always had me sing a couple of songs to open the show. Just imagine 10,000 drunk Belgians all yelling, “Big Fat Mama!”  It was a sight to enthrall.  Well, for a guy who normally made his money on a ladder, being on the international blues circuit was like 6th Heaven.  But then I met Amy and I ascended the 7th rung. I must admit, I was sleep deprived and in mourning for “Earring” George when I was pierced by Cupid’s sharpest arrow. I continued working for Luther for another year, but Amy had gotten me a 1-800 telephone number to call her on.  I had seen it happen to guys before and even been warned by Henry that “Women tell you they love you to play the blues, but the minute you get with them, they don’t want you to go nowhere!” he used to say.  But it was too late. I was infected and now I live in blissful isolation.  All I want to do is be close enough to smell her all the time. I don’t play my piano for anyone but her unless she compels me. 

(Editor's note: Eric should be back at Luso Food and Wine on August 3 (check with Luso's for details).  Meanwhile, here's a LINK to videos that include Amy & Eric's wedding, a great performance with Luther "Guitar Jr." Johnson, and Moore's performance to a giant crowd at the 1999 Bumpershoot festival.  And  as an added bonus, below, Johnson in the 1990s with  in Europe with another pretty good band.)

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Eric "Two Scoops" Moore at Luso Food and Wine

I'm always the last to know.  But I don't mind as long as I find out eventually. 

And last night, at a little place in White Center, I found out again.  


Last night my wife and I had a chance to go out.  She knew a spot for dinner.  I searched the music listings for something interesting.  I wasn’t sure I’d found it, but we decided to take a chance on Eric “Two Scoops” Moore at a place called Luso Food and Wine in White Center.  We’d never heard of the person or the place, but the music calendar promised boogie-woogie and blues, and Yelp gave the place five stars for food, wine and community.  Plus, there was something about “Two Scoops” having won a Washington Blues Society award for songwriting, so I figured this was the real thing.

Then I checked youtube and found THIS!

Check out some of the lyrics for Big Buffet!

They got meat and potatoes
They got beans and rice they got
Real country gravy
Make you go back twice 
They got bacon, baloney
Salami and ham
Liverwurst and knockwurst and
“Move along, ma’am!”

And it keeps going, with food after food and rhyme after surprising rhyme.  For a guy who grew up on Chuck Berry lyrics this is too good, and it may be the best food song since Louis Jordan’s Beans and Cornbread.  Except that Moore has also written songs with names like Hamburger Time, Let’s Eat and Pork Chops.  

Luso Food and Wine (read about it HERE) is on a street in White Center that reminds me of some streets I visited in The Bronx recently, except that those were teaming with people and 16th Street SW was practically empty last night, and so was was Luso, at least at the beginning.  The place itself is large and bright.  There are wines and beer and specialty foods from Brazil, Portugal and India.  The owner, Tina, is a Portuguese citizen of Goan heritage.  “Two Scoops” was at an old Yamaha electric piano wearing a straw fedora and green sport coat that was practically florescent.  And pretty much as soon as we sat down he launched into Big Buffet!  After that it didn’t stop for more than an hour.  He sang son after song from his compilation album “Big Buffet Combo Platter” (there was one copy on the counter, and I bought it): songs like Two Scoops, He Quit, Stop Shopping Mama, Lefthanded, Clean Clean Clean and Hamburger Time.  There was no microphone, so I had to lean in and wait for punch lines to hear bits of the lyrics, but the punch lines kept coming.  Meanwhile “Two Scoops” keeps things rolling with his piano licks, doing all the riffs I now hear horns doing on his record, pounding out bass lines with his left.  The songs aren't all about food.  They cover the gamut of everyday life: a woman who cleans too much ("she's stronger than dirt!"); another who shops too much ("I don't want to die in a department store!"); another who's big and fat; a song about car trouble that has made it to Car Talk; a song about quitting cigarettes; one about whiskey; a song about being "good for nothing," and one about "two left hands."  And a powerful love song called "place of love."  ("You can make a lot of money, but you'll never have enough.  Don't let nothing take the place of love.")

The record turns out to be one of several Moore has put out since 1997.  It's a "greatest hits" record.  The sound on each cut is rich and full, with horns and drums, and a voice that sounds a little like Dr. John meets Randy Newman.  Since it's a compilation about 20 musicians participated, including blues guitar legend Duke Robillard, who produced one of the albums and provides a testament on the back of this one, saying “As all great Blues artists are, Eric is a storyteller whose slant on life gives his music a wonderful twist full of humor, optimism and love.”

The fact that Robillard says this shows that just because I've missed out on Moore until now, the rest of the world hasn't.  According to Moore's website "Moore toured and recorded with the late Chicago blues harpmaster, "Earring" George Mayweather (7 years) and the great Muddy Waters guitarist, Grammy and Handy award winner, Luther "Guitar Jr." Johnson (6 years). Two Scoops has performed his brand of boogie magic at premier blues venues and festivals in 36 states, 12 countries on three continents."

In addition to making music, Moore makes sculpture and paintings.  Check a bit of it out below, or on his Facebook page.

Before the show was over other folks had wandered in to listen and grin.  One was a young hispanic kid named Daniel.  I thought it was just a random encounter until he begged Moore to play and sing one more, then joined him at the keyboard to play along to Moore's left hand.  Maybe it was a random encounter, but I suspect there will be more of them.

Eric “Two Scoops” Moore will be playing at Madison Park in Seattle with his combo on August 8 from 6:30 to 8:00 pm.  More about that on his website,  And Luso Food and Wine owner Fatima hopes to make him a regular feature on Fridays or Saturdays.  I’ll be there if she does.  You, too.

(Eric is tentatively scheduled to play at Luso's on August 3.  Check with Luso's for details.)