Cleveland Heights, Ohio
August 29, 2009
Mose Allison sings for survivors. He always has. He sings easy, buoyant blues in a lackadaisical style. His voice, while rubbed at the edges from more than 50 years on the road, is still crisp with vaudevillian nonchalance. He accompanies himself with confident, insistent piano vamps drawn as much from Wagner as Fats Waller, and his solos are constantly inventive and invigorating while never straying from the familiar. Moreover, the technical verve hasn't left his fingers.
On this, the second of two nights at Nighttown, Allison and his trio, bassist Marty Block and drummer Roy King, ran through two 19-song sets (the second with an additional two-song encore) in less than 90 minutes each. Yet nothing felt rushed. And while most of the songs stuck to established formulablues with a brief piano solo to break up the singingthe routine never grew tiresome. Such is the magic of Mose.
Clad in an outsized cream jacket and Adidas tennis shoes, and sporting his now-signature clipped white beard, Allison seemed the sly third brother of Lawrence Ferlinghetti and George Carlin. Not an odd fit for the old English and philosophy major whose humorous wordplay has delighted several generations.
He opened both sets with a musical number that gave ample room for both Block and King to stretch, before jumping into the songs. In addition to his own material, Allison played blues from some of his favorite musicians and composers, such as Percy Mayfield, Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon and Johnny Fuller. He also gave a nod to Cleveland by singing "Who's Loving You Tonight?" a composition by the city's favorite adopted blues son, the late, great Robert Lockwood Jr. Originals and covers alike were presented in Allison's patented chugging styleeach number a testament to the power of shrugging off hardship with a giggle.
"I'd never have made it this far, if I couldn't laugh," Allison's songs continually suggested. It was there in "Your Molecular Structure," with its Carlinesque techno-jumble ("A high frequency modulated Jezebel / Thermodynamically, you're getting to me"), in the life-as-fantasy of "What's Your Movie?" ("Are you standing up singing as your ship goes down?"), and in the apocalyptic acceptance of "Ever Since the World Ended," which suggests "It's just as well / We couldn't have taken much more" and yet, at song's end, proclaims, "I face the future with a smile." Now that's positive resilience.
At times, Allison's singing strayed far afield from a song's original melodysometimes intentionally, other times, perhaps, more from the ill effects of age. But Allison's spell was never broken. And often, as with his "Tumblin' Tumbleweeds" encore, the flattening of a melody into the Allison mold produced an off-the-cuff, comical effect that invigorated a long-since worn-out tune. And the melodious Duke Ellington standard "Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me," while handled faithfully, was given a wonderful Allisonian touch at its close, with the "you" in "and you never will" lifted and stretched into a hayseed yodel, beneath which Allison layered the gravitas of a classical piano motif. It was a misdirection that so ingeniously highlighted the song's lyrics and is so typical of Allison's music in general. Should I laugh or should I cry? the listener asks. There's little doubt how the road warrior pianist Allison would answer. Choose the former, you'll live longer.