B.B. King's Blues Club might not exactly devote itself exclusively to the 12-bar business of its name, but it's certainly the joint to head for when the big-name players hit town. The club also specializes in double or triple-bill old-style revues, where the audiences usually have to prepare themselves for a lengthy barbecue immersion.
This particular triple-shot was so charged with energy that the sheer momentum of the performers carried through what was nearing a four-hour show. Even longer for those who'd arrived to stake out a table, and gobble up a steak. The only downside of the preliminaries is that the crowd thinned out slightly by the time headliner Joe Louis Walker took his bill-topping place on the stage.
Hours before that, Watermelon Slim had laid out a powerful challenge for all to follow. This was no mere opening act. The Watermelon (born as Bill Homans) is much dryer than his moniker suggests. He's more of a leathery walnut, really. Slim is probably younger than he looks. He cultivates a hard-livin,' abstract-ramblin,' smoker-vocalled persona that's kinda post-Tom Waits in nature.
The other time I saw the Watermelon, in Birmingham, England, he was in stripped-down acoustic downhome mode. This gig's rockingly electrified incarnation presented a completely different aspect of Slim's talents. Everything was amplified to maximum, emphasizing his gruff, gritty, grizzled sound, as a singer, harp-blower and slide guitarist. Between the actual delivery of the songs, Slim filled his routine with idiosyncratic tics: throwing dollars into the crowd, making mysterious hand signals, proudly rummaging in his collection of liquor-filled bottles. He swears that each one lends a characteristic sound when scraped along the guitar neck. Slim plays his dobro in the laptop horizontal position, but lays it on a table, after the fashion of Keith Rowe or Fred Frith.
Watermelon's blues are of the hard-trucking variety, mostly indebted to Howlin' Wolf in their threatening style. In actuality, Slim has been out on the highways as a professional truck driver, taking much lyrical inspiration from that experience. He also mixes this Wolf-ish violence with an extremely arid, eccentric humor. Even though the band rucks up with a classic blues delivery, Slim's original songs add a strong element of autobiographical individuality. This was hardcore blues mastery that gripped the audience by their barely-digested gullets.
Next up, singer Janiva Magness had a tough act to follow. Firstly, she's a mellower mainstreamed proposition, surprisingly so given that she's signed to the usually hard-ass Alligator Records. There couldn't have been a sharper contrast between Slim's man-of-the-road persona and the Magness nightclub slickness'n'sincerity. There's even a variance of feels within her band itself, as guitarist Zach Zunis took the lead on the introduction, scribbling out overloaded solos that could barely contain their own electricity. He toned down the frazzling mania once Magness made her entry, but he would still periodically let rip with sudden stinging statements. Initially, the bandleader might have come across as a slick entertainer, but as the set progressed she began to win over the listener with her confrontational frankness. Magness might tread a line between blues and mainstream rock, but she was starting to stand on the right side of its demarcation.
The singer/guitarist Joe Louis Walker had already played a much more intimate night at the Blue Note club two months earlier. His band's rapport was already in place then, but had become even more greased by the time of this show. Even though Walker can easily spearhead any combo around, his recent collaborations have involved writing, recording and performing with fellow singer/guitarist Murali Coryell, who happens to be the son of Larry.
As the years amble by, Walker has actually become more youthful in his aspect. Gone are the slick, straight suits, and now his 'locks have grown, topped by a strategically tilted hat. It's enough that Walker is wired up with a hyper-charge, but the chemistry with Coryell manages to heighten the energy even more. Each has his own manifestation of the soul-blues howl'n'growl, and this sharing of lead vocal duties creates a sustained sense of surprise.