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.