Thursday, January 22, 2009
The Brooks Williams Trio w/Beaucoup Blue @ The Iron Horse, January 22nd, 2009
Just got back from a fabulous evening of music at the Iron Horse. My first folk music love, Brooks Williams, played 90 minutes of music with his band. That's right: his band. I had never seen him play with a band prior to a few hours ago. Once, many years ago, I saw him play as a duo with Rani Arbo (the fiddler from Daisy Mayhem and, before that, Salamander Crossing). Other than that, I have only known Brooks as a solo performer.
So, the boys of Beaucoup Blue, David and Adrien, opened the evening with a little over 30 minutes of guitar playing and singing. Their music is certainly bluesy, but they definitely are not slaves to some wrong-headed notion of authenticity. The two voices are quite different: the young man smooth, the old man rough. And so was the guitar playing: the young man focused on rhythm, the old man breaking out into slide guitar solos. When the youngster soloed, he didn't seem entirely comfortable. Their songs were pretty good. "Delta Rain" was about a trip to the south, about a month after 9/11. "Four in the Morning" and "Catch Me When I Wake Up" sounded particularly good. And they were called back for an encore, a cover of "CC Rider."
At around 7:50, Brooks Williams hit the stage with his band, bassist Richard Gates and drummer Sturgis Cunningham. I couldn't have been happier with how they began: Brooks' arrangement of Buddy and Julie Miller's "My Love Will Follow You." And, although I was a bit skeptical of how Brooks would sound with so much backup, the band provided real electricity. They were not there for show, they were there to back up the main man and, in this case, that meant rocking out here, swinging a bit there. I thought back to the Marshall Crenshaw show I had seen in Brooklyn. There, I saw a man who made his name with a rock group adjusting to the challenges of playing alone. Here, I was watching a man work with a band in the midst of a career of playing solo gigs. I was not disappointed, not even once.
After that opener, Brooks announced that he was going to play songs from his latest album, The Time I Spend with You (2008). That was fine by me. It's one of his best albums, I think. It's a fun-loving album, not at all introspective, and concerned mainly with giving pleasure to its listeners. "Everywhere" was a light, jazzy number, inducing the drummer to mellow out a bit. I'd expected a long sequence of new material but, after "Everywhere" came the first real test with the band. "Belfast Blues" has been a staple of Brooks' live shows for over 10 years and, apart from the original recording on Knife Edge (1995), I'd never heard it with any instruments other than guitar. The band arrangement was fun. I can't say it revealed anything new or different about the song, but it wasn't a letdown either. Up next was one of Brooks' sexiest numbers, "Rich Tonight." Like "Belfast Blues," "Rich Tonight" originally appeared on one the albums Brooks recorded with the Green Linnet label during the mid-1990s, before rerecording it many years later. It is one of the highlights from Seven Sisters (1997). On his newest album, it's different, less subtle, more rocking. And it was a peak moment at the concert. The band slammed into the groove, and Brooks was clearly having a ball.
Throughout the concert, Brooks Williams looked positively joyful. If he wasn't totally focused on getting just the right notes out of his guitar, he was grinning up a storm on almost every song. His enthusiasm shone through, and it reminded me of why I've loved going to his concerts for almost half of my life. This was the first time I'd seen him since the spring of 2003, and I'd forgotten what a pleasure his shows are.
At one point, the band left the stage--a "union break," Brooks joked--and Brooks played two songs on his own, the way I'm used to seeing him. And I was overjoyed by the selections, John Martyn's "May You Never" and, by request, "Seven Sisters." I don't think I had ever heard him play "May You Never" live before, and my heart leaped as I realized what he was playing. Both of the songs were models of exemplary finger-picking guitar playing and deep, soulful singing. "Seven Sisters" is among the best songs he has ever written, a song about renewal and recovery, as nature reclaims some of what was taken from it. There was an amusing moment before that song, as Brooks searched the stage for a capo. He couldn't find his, so one of the Beaucoup Blue boys lent him one of theirs.
After those two songs, the band returned, and, with each song, they seemed to get hotter and hotter. "The Time I Spend with You" and "61 Highway" (preceded by a great story about being smitten by Bonnie Raitt, after seeing her on TV as an adolescent) and "Lightning" from the new album, "Weeping Willow Blues" from Blues and Ballads, and, a "hidden track" from the new album, "Same Old Me," which was probably the hardest rocking song of the night. Then Beaucoup Blue joined the band, and they did "Statesboro Blues," "Little Wheel" (a song from BB's repertoire), and "Key to the Highway." The jamming was like...I don't know what. It felt like I was listening to a really good bar band, full of musicians who just didn't get a chance to play with each other as often as they liked to. Their enthusiasm was plain as day, in their faces, and in their playing. I don't mean to pick favorites, and I don't mean any disrespect, but when they laid out to solo, Brooks was head and shoulders above the Beaucoup Blue boys. Brooks has a command of many different styles, and his solos were not straight blues, in the way that BB's solos were, but were something above and beyond that.
For those readers not in the know, a lot of these songs are either old blues standards or make lots of reference to old blues songs. "61 Highway" is Mississippi Fred McDowell, "Weeping Willow Blues" is Blind Boy Fuller, "Statesboro Blues" is Blind Willie McTell, and I don't know who originally wrote "Key to the Highway," but I've heard lots of folks play that one. "Lightning" is a reference to Lightning Hopkins. Earlier in the set, they had also done "Trouble in Mind" which Brooks attributed to Snooks Eaglin, although I'm familiar with it through Hot Tuna's version. I love the blues. I love the fact that I was watching something almost ritualistic, as these folks paid their respects to musicians they loved by playing their songs, songs whose vocabularies were absorbed into rock and roll so long ago that it's hard to remember just where the words and notes came from.
For an encore, the trio performed "Honey Babe," from Blues and Ballads.
Afterwards, I shared a nice moment with the man. I said hello to him. It took him a moment, but he remembered me. He definitely remembered Anthony Spano, my man from Boston, who takes an occasional guitar lesson from him, and we talked a bit about what a nice guy he is. I shared my exciting news with him, that I was learning the guitar myself. It felt great to talk with him again. The last time I spoke with him, almost 5 years ago, I was giddy with excitement, all the more so because he knew my name! I remember bouncing down the street afterwards, my girlfriend very highly amused. It wasn't quite like that this time around...but I left the Iron Horse in a very good mood, indeed.