The Polish White Eagle has risen like a phoenix from the ashes of the former North End Depot Bar and Volleyball complex at the corner of Larpenter and Rice in St. Paul, MN. Terrible Ted Wilebski is back with a vengeance and has thrown down the gauntlet for rights to the moniker "The Twin Cities Home of the Blues". Taking advantage of the downturn in the commercial real estate market, especially in a blighted neighborhood, and in a stroke of redesign brilliance, Wilebski has transformed the long defunct indoor volleyball and booze emporium (aka Spike It and Puke) into the Twin Cities new Mecca for the Blues. After just one visit I can honestly say job well done.
To announce his comeback to the world two weekends ago, Wilebski hosted his first annual Winter Blowout with three nights of national blues acts. Two of the three nights showcased past and present members of one of music’s greatest horn sections, Roomful of Blues. My son and I attended the Saturday night show of Roomful-palooza featuring the current version of the world’s greatest little big band who are out touring to promote their latest cd “Hook , Line & Sinker”. (Sunday night featured Jimmie Vaughn and the Tilt a Whirl band featuring my old friend and Duke Robillard sideman, Doug James on baritone sax and the former leader of Roomful, Greg Piccolo on tenor.) Featuring new singer Phil Pemberton and led by guitarist Chris Vachon and saxophonist (and only original member) Ritch Lataille, the guys from Providence, RI were having a party showcasing their catalogue which stretches back over the 40+ year history of the band.
Pemberton, no stranger to the Northeast blues scene, steps into the shoes most recently filled by Dave Howard. Howard has taken time off from the road due to an illness in his family and our thoughts go out to Dave and his wife. You’ll be glad to hear that Pemberton makes what is always a difficult transition seem almost seamless.
Now one would think that fronting a legendary band whose former singers have included the likes of Curt Salgado, Sugar Ray Norcia, Mac Odom, Mark DuFresne as well as the aforementioned Mr. Howard, would leave one a little nervous, maybe even looking over their shoulder. Perhaps this is why Pemberton was filming himself and his band mates throughout the show with his white iphone or perhaps he was just having a ball playing to a packed house. Despite a slight hoarseness in his voice, Pemberton led the band through a retrospective of their decades of recorded material including the title track to their 1970’s release on Antilles records, “Let’s Have a Party”, “Baby Please Don’t Go” off of their 80’s release “Live at Lupo’s” and “Turn it on, Turn it up” from the cd with the same name circa mid-90’s.
However, it was the new material that really stood out and made me lean over to my friend and one of the best soundmen in the business, Mike LeBeau and ask “Is this on the new one?” on several occasions. Ever the gentleman and loyal friend, Mikey as his friends call him, immediately spotted my son and I as we arrived to a packed house and ushered us back to his perch behind the boards where we enjoyed the best sound and sight lines in the house.
Speaking of the house, I must digress and describe briefly the new Blues Saloon. Resembling a smaller version of the New Orleans' House of Blues, Wilebski has transformed the former volleyball area into the main music room, surrounded on three sides by multi-tiered levels and balconies. Like an old state fair Fun House, the place is a little old and rickety but full of little nooks and crannies, (like the second, smaller, music venue tucked away in the far corner of the second floor where another band plays between sets), that demand exploring.
Standing at one of the many bars on the first floor to get a round of drinks it was like old home week running into Donnie Brewbaker, former owner of the club bearing his name which hosted Roomful on countless occasions over the years. I conveyed to Don the fact that the band had always counted him as one of the best club owners in the country as far as the way he treated them over the years and I could tell that he appreciated their respect and thanks.
Getting back to the music, the new cd takes its title from the Earl King and legendary New Orleans band leader Dave Bartholomew song of the same name. Although not a self-penned number in the bunch, with material like this and a band for whom it was practically written for, who cares? The new cd includes “That’s a Pretty Good Love”, “She Walks Right In”, the first of two great Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown tracks, the title track, as well as a track from my favorite old blues label, Duke records, “Win With Me Baby” which could be the theme to the current Charlie Sheen tour. Duke records, whose owner, the notorious gangster and licensing rights thief Don Robey, is credited with writing this one to which I say “and Chuck Berry is credited with Johnnie Johnson’s songs”. Right.
Of special note are their covers of the Leiber and Stoller classic, “It”, Floyd Dixon’s beautifully haunting “Time Brings about A Change” and the cd’s closer “Just A Little Love”. Performed live, these songs really clicked and much of the credit has to go to the new trumpet player and Winona, Minnesota native Doug Woolverton “Mountain”. In perhaps the hardest job ever attempted by a newer member of the band, Doug had the unenviable task of filling in the huge void left by the passing of my dear friend Bob “Bubba” Enos. In addition to being one of the great trumpet players in the business, Bob E was the bands unofficial ambassador, and perhaps most recognized member, who as Chris so eloquently eulogized, had the heart of a lion. I know I am not being disloyal to my old friend when I say that Doug has done an incredible job both musically and perhaps most importantly, in the quiet and respectful manner in which he has conducted himself, letting his horn do the talking out of respect to his predecessor. Doug will forever have my respect for being such a class act.
Finally, any review of Roomful of Blues would be incomplete without a nod to the entire band for despite all the credit that rightfully goes to the horn section, which consists of the afore mentioned members Ritch Lataille and Doug Woolverton, also includes long time baritone sax man Mark “Never” Early (aka “right on time”). But one of this bands greatest assets is their incredible rhythm section featuring Austin, TX native and complete monster on keyboards, Travis Colby, the low key but versatile drummer Ephraim Lowell who can play brushes with a touch and feel of a jazz drummer yet pound out a rock beat with the best of them. Rounding out the rhythm section is John Turner on upright bass, perhaps the most underappreciated but most welcome player to a position that has had more rotations than the Twins at second base. I would also be remiss if I did not note the playing of band leader Chris Vachon on guitar, whose playing was fresh with reworked licks that made the bands most played standards seem new and interesting.
So for anybody out there keeping count, score one for Terrible Ted, and watch out Famous Dave, there's a new Blues impresario in town.
Pick up Roomful of Blues latest cd, “Hook, Line & Sinker” on Alligators records at a music store near you or directly from the band’s website at http://www.roomful.com/store