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Joe Louis Walker, Jimmie Vaughan, The Holmes Brothers & Leo Kottke

Martin Longley By

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Joe Louis Walker/Watermelon Slim/Janiva Magness

B.B. King Blues Club

May 18, 2010

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.

Another reason why this partnership succeeds is due to Coryell's songwriting talents. Two of the set's highlights were lifted from his own albums, and his "Way Too Expensive" is already a highlight of the recent Walker album Between A Rock And The Blues. "Calling From Another Phone" has a sinister, confessional streak that's comparable with that of Robert Cray's best songs, and "In The Room With Jimi" delivers a mixture of fond celebration and melancholy nostalgia. These were some of the slinkiest passages, providing a stealthier means of winning over the audience. Nevertheless, Walker's set suffered no shortage of lightning rod guitar solos and controlled-scream vocal emoting. The band's heavy road schedule has helped perfect their smoking showmanship to an intense degree.

Jimmie Vaughan/Moreland & Arbuckle

B.B. King Blues Club

May 19, 2010

The following night's show continued a predilection for strong opening acts. The little-known Moreland & Arbuckle will surely be basking in a heightened profile before too long. Particularly as they're freshly-signed to Telarc Records. Dustin Arbuckle sings and blows harmonica, whilst Aaron Moreland plays guitar. Drummer Brad Horner doesn't get to have his name included on the billboard.

The Wichita combo's favorite year is probably 1973, their rugged approach drawn and distilled from archetypal longhaired boogie-blues. For much of the set, Moreland was playing a seemingly home-made cigar box guitar, such a throwback paradoxically being the duo's most modernistic trait, in the light of current trends towards authentic downhome revivalism. It has four strings, one of which is fed through a bass amplifier.

Moreland & Arbuckle achieved a sustained push towards the crowd, visibly hot-wired throughout their short runaway set. Their personalities easily projected right back to the bar at the far side of the room. Each of the frontmen specializes in roughing up their output, whether it's howling vocals, huffing harp or hard-sliding guitarwork.

In the initial stages of his substantial set, Texan twanger Jimmie Vaughan came across as comparatively subdued and unfocused. There were a few tuning or string-breaking incidents, placing the guitarist in a distracted state. His vocals were often lacking in outward thrust. Perhaps this was just Vaughan's concept of slow-curve pacing, as the delivery steadily became more involved.

The main lift arrived once guest singer Lou Ann Barton took to the stage, with her drawling-twang and assured nonchalance literally raising up the entire level of the gig. Vaughan now had someone to spark against, and his solos began to smoke. He can travel from 1930s percussive picking, leaving ample spaces between his emphatic notes, up to a 1950s rock'n'roll reverberation, full of twanging elaborations. The set's highlights included a very sparse "Six Strings Down" and the lengthy ascension of "Texas Flood."

The Holmes Brothers

City Winery

June 6, 2010

A few nights later, the Holmes siblings would be appearing as part of the Central Park Summerstage homage to the songwriting of Simon & Garfunkel. That multi-artist extravaganza was produced by Michael Dorff, so a bonus appearance at his own City Winery venue seemed inevitable. The Brothers (well, drummer Popsy Dixon is an honorary Holmes) might dwell in the city, but their spiritual stomping ground is in Virginia. They also sound like they should ideally have come out of the deepest southern states.

Although primarily considered to be a blues act, the Holmes crew actually adopt the entire history of American black music. Their three-part harmonies feature elements of soul, gospel, doo wop, country, funk and jazz. They pretty much call a halt just before rap music, though.

The last time I saw them was at the Terra Blues club in Greenwich Village, where they were attired informally. In this dining ambiance, they chose to wear suits and slightly reduce the harder blues edge that they would customarily adopt in a more beery joint. The Holmes repertoire is so varied, and their stylistic range so wide, that they can perform in a very broad range of settings. A few years earlier, I'd caught them at WOMAD, the English global music festival, where they were projecting with exaggerated giant-size showmanship.

There have been a few trials during the last couple of years. Wendell Holmes (who doubles on guitar and keyboards) was diagnosed with cancer, but has successfully fought back to full health. A comment towards the end of their moderately short set had a poignant ring, warning that they never know whether this will be the final time they see this particular group of fans.

It was difficult to judge the ratios of grim humor and curt dissatisfaction when Wendell introduced "Fair Weather Friend" form the recent Feed My Soul album. The song concerns a particular person who failed to visit him whilst he was undergoing treatment. Sometimes, the Brothers will slip in an unexpected treat, as with "And I Love Her," from The Beatles songbook. Or there will be a completely obvious selection, such as "Amazing Grace."

The Holmes Brothers worked hard to build up an atmosphere and connect with the crowd, but ultimately the set felt too short to complete this circle. Just as they were gathering some momentum the show concluded in what seemed to be an almost abrupt manner. It's not right to complain about this following Wendell's still recent recovery, but maybe they could have played two shorter sets, and rested in-between.

Leo Kottke

City Winery

June 11, 2010

Back at the Winery less than a week later, Athens, Georgia-born guitarist and occasional singer Leo Kottke was holding court. He performs instrumentals and songs, but a typical set will also include involved anecdotal ramblings, with a nervous subject-hopping that appears to be actively cultivated by Kottke. He jokes that the last time he played here, a drunk in the audience shouted out that he should play some music. Kottke thinks that the dude might have had a valid point.

Unfortunately, a dining atmosphere is not exactly conducive to Kottke's presentation. Firstly, he doesn't possess the clearest orator's voice. Secondly, the amplification on his vocal microphone could have been sharper. Thirdly, as the evening wore on, elements of the audience became increasingly distracted by their own dinner conversations. Whilst Kottke was singing and playing, this presented no problem.

His foundation is the blues, but as with The Holmes Brothers, matters are not quite so straightforward. Kottke amalgamates several folk troubadour styles, tossing in stray flickers of bluegrass, flamenco, country and rock balladry. His six- and 12-string picking is heavily stylized, with much bending of notes and merging of phrases. He's not the strongest of singers, but the aim is heading towards a narrative ramble anyway. The performance was enjoyably streaked with spontaneity, although it's highly likely that Kottke knows exactly what's happening, but just creates the illusion of absent-mindedness.
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