TRIPPING


SON HOUSE MEETS WES THE POWER TRIO

by Vincent Abbate


"People are always talkin' about Mississippi. But you know, the blues really was born in Louisiana. That's right. A hundred years later they've gone right 'round the world. Know what the problem is, though? I'll tell you. When the blues left Louisiana, they done lost the funk!"

The bass player hangs his head down over his flashy red six-string, whaps at it, slaps at it, lays down a hopscotch line of jumping sixteenth-notes, gets funky, gets down. Though it's Tuesday and the Tuesday night regulars have come out to hear the blues. In the corner, the department store dummy is set up as he is every Tuesday, a sort of mascot-host. His cowboy hat and Dobro, somebody's idea of the archetypal bluesman. He's used to seeing more traditional bands play here. But these dudes are from New Orleans, I guess that makes it okay, right?

Towering stage left, the guitar man is the flesh and blood version of some weird rocker you might have seen on The Jetsons , an imposing hairy giant in black tights, tunic and knee-high leather space boots. Impossibly, he gets his thick fingers around a bundle of jazzy, funky chords, now what do you think of that, Cowboy? Hold on. Here comes his solo. He steps on a pedal, runs his left hand up the neck and ... hey. Where's that trumpet coming from? No horns up there. You mean? Wait a minute. The guitar man's fingers are moving right in time with those trumpet notes and - now it's a trombone! Have I got this straight? I mean I've had one or two beers but that's all. The guitar is the trombone, right? Check out his fingers. It's him.

So where's that piano solo coming from?

WES the Power Trio

The band's called WES. They've come over from New Orleans promising a good-time melange of swamp blues, funk, rock and soul. As I'm sitting there listening and watching this trio smile, jump, clown its way through the first few numbers, another picture takes shape inside my head. I see a whole generation of itinerant bluesmen spinning in their graves all over the American south. And shouting out in unison in a ghostly chorus from six-feet under: what have you done to our music? You call that racket the blues? And where the heck is that trombone coming from?

I glance to my right. An elderly man has pulled a chair up to my table. He winks at me, takes a load off, sighs, squares his chair with the stage and pulls out a cigarette. He's out of place here. An out-of-towner. Yet I've seen his face before. In black and white I think. A trustworthy, serious, world-worn face. Hmm. I take a pull on my beer, watch him scrutinize the band like he knows a little something about music.

I've got it.

It's the old man. Eddie James House Junior.

"Son House."

He hears this and nods.

"What are you doing here?"

"Come out to hear the blues."

"And?"

He shoots smoke out of one side of his mouth. "Ain't heard none yet."

I flag down a waitress on her way to the bar and order two beers, hoping Son will let me invite him. He's sizing us up. The crowd's a mix of young and not-so-young, an equal split of men and women, ninety-nine percent caucasian. A few stragglers have wandered in from the adjacent dining room happy and unaware, but most of the listeners are diehards. Regular Tuesday-nighters. They come for the blues, no matter who's playing. I wonder if any of the regulars recognize the old man at my table.

The band does. For several minutes they fiddle nervously with their gadgets, adjust their Michael Jackson-style headsets. The drummer checks the volume on his electronic drum kit, the guitarists test for feedback. Impatient for music, the crowd chatters about the weird costumes the band members are wearing - what is this, Mardi Gras? - and about their girth. Combined, guitar and bass man take up as much room as most five-piece combos. C'mon! Quit toying with your effects. Play us some New Orleans blues!

Conveniently, our beers arrive during the break in the music. Son accepts his with a nod.

"So you don't like the band?" I ask.

"Didn't say that. Only I don't see what it's got to do with the blues is all."

The rest of the crowd's resisting, too. They met the bass man's stale "How you folks feelin' tonight?" introduction with a lukewarm growl. The only body moving has been the waitress bringing the beers. And now this unexplained break in the set.

"I crazy," continues Son, "or did that guitar man play the piano on his guitar? I must be crazy."

"You didn't have that kind of thing in Mississippi, did you?"

"Didn't need it, either. Now what's that boy doin'?"

The band's in action again, the drummer taking the vocal this time. He's strapped a flat square drum pad in front of him and is moving through the crowd like a cigarette vendor in a 1940s ballroom.

"He's not much of a singer," I say, "not like you."

"That thing he's whacking, that don't belong anywhere near the blues."

"It's not Delta blues. It's not country blues."

"You been to the Delta?"

"No. But I read Lomax."

"Lomax?"

"The guy with the cola."

I feel stupid and self-conscious bringing this up in front of the old man and decide I must be hallucinating. I scan nearby tables to see who's watching me go nuts. I squeeze my eyes shut, take a swig. He's still there.

"Was Lomax that white fellow came through from Washington?"

WES cranks out a half-dozen tunes before the crowd forgets all the technology and grooves. The spaceman guitarist lays down crackling, swamp-soaked solos, the cheerleader with the bass makes his licks look easy. He leads his cordless troupe on a tour of the room, brings band and crowd together, they grind and shake and we pick up on the vibe.

Go, man, go.

Old ladies start clapping out the beat. A fiftyish guy in the back sways side-to-side with the music, the drink or both.

Play it man, play the blues!

If this set's a battle between band and audience, the band has scored a TKO. Anything they do now, we dig it. When the guitarist plays with his teeth like Jimi at Monterey, we cheer and forgive him that piece of gear which transforms his Stratocaster into a trumpet. We drink, watch, listen, move, sweat, howl and pray for the evening to last forever.

Except for Son House.

"Now you say you know the Mississippi blues," he says when the band has exited a first time. The crowd is yelling for more. I nod yes.

"And you know my records even."

"Some of the best ever."

"Can you explain to me what you like about these boys?"

He's right and I have to admit it. WES, back onstage for an encore, has little to do with the roots. Or maybe they do. I'm playing a hunch here.

"Lemme ask you something, Eddie."

This pleases him, me knowing his Christian name. He's got a charming smile.

"You remember Muddy?"

"Taught him what little I know."

"I read once where Muddy said, and I maybe got this a little mixed up, but Muddy said he hardly ever had the blues when he played them. He just played them."

"Sounds like Muddy alright."

"Now some of your blues, Death Letter Blues and ones like that, they were down, really sad, intense blues. How was it when you used to play for people? You know, like at those fish fries and things?"

The band has left the stage again but the crowd's begging them back. Hey, you came all the way from Louisiana. Play us another!

"It was..." Son House's answer stops there. I can't believe it. He's applauding. He has his left hand cupped to protect a cigarette but claps as heartily as anyone in the room. He's caught the vibe like all of us. Say it, Eddie. Tell me the blues is release. The blues is forgetting troubles. The blues is about getting happy. It was then and it is now.

"It was like this." He waves a hand at the roomful of ecstatic, end-of-millennium people before him. "The folks loved it. They was dancin' and hollerin' and flirtin' and eatin' and drinkin' and ... sorta like this."

The band returns a second time and, much to Son's delight, closes with a straight blues he reckons he knows from long ago. I close my eyes on the beautiful sight of Son House tapping his fingers on a bottle of beer I bought him. When the band is through and the houselights come up to send us home, I open my eyes to find him gone.

I stay a while.

WES packs its gear and leaves.

The room empties.

I listen real real close.

And I hear him.

Eddie Son House is reporting back to the other members of the chorus of dead blues legends. Saying Our music. They done changed it around again. But it's still going. It's still alive.


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