Sunday, June 12, 2011

After 30 Years Lonnie Brooks Still Has What Blues Lovers Need

As a huge blues fan and lover of good music in general, I have been very fortunate over the years to meet some of my favorite artists. While this can sometimes be a cautionary tale (e.g. the waitress who was slugged by a very drunk John Lennon famously said something to the effect that it wasn't the black eye that hurt as much as finding out one of your heroes was a real asshole) the same can not be said of Mr. Lonnie Brooks. Brooks, one of the most genuinely nice people I have ever met, is completely devoid of the arrogance and ego that afflicts many famous musicians, especially guitar players.

With a career spanning over five decades and dating back to his early releases under the stage name "Guitar Junior" including the country cross-over "Family Rules" and the song later made popular with a new generation of blues fans by the Fabulous Thunderbirds, "The Crawl". As the moniker "Guitar Junior" was also being used by another blues guitarist, Luther "Guitar Junior" Johnson, another acquaintance of mine, Brooks smartly and graciously returned to his real name and never looked back.

Although originally from Louisiana, Brooks eventually left his father's farm, hopping a horse and then a freight train, eventually ending up in Chicago where he has been based ever since. My path crossed with Mr. Brooks in the early 1980's where I met the ever affable gentleman backstage at Summerfest in Milwaukee. Lonnie and band played the Old Style Country Stage where he performed right before (or after?) my friends Roomful of Blues. A couple years earlier I had met and become friends with Roomful's late great trumpeter Bob Enos and in one of those strange coincidences in life, had earlier also met Luther "Guitar Junior" Johnson's key board player Ron Levy, who now happened to be playing in Roomful. Seeing my friends before the show, they hustled up a backstage pass for me so I could enjoy the complimentary keg and socialize with the performers in the backstage trailer that doubled as the performers dressing room. It is in that trailer that I found myself seated on a couch next to Roomful's then guitarist, the great Ronnie Earl and the legendary Lonnie Brooks.

Ronnie had just complimented Mr. Brooks on the success of his latest album on Alligator (in another strange irony, now Roomful's current label) to which Brooks responded with sincere thanks but then stated something to the effect that the funny part about his current success was he had a single that was actually getting considerable airplay in Chicago and had become something of a hit, one of his first since the old days on the Goldband label. This was at a time when everyone thought the Blues were dead and disco had recently reigned supreme. Well this of course caught the attention of every one in the room, especially when Lonnie said "..and you'll never believe how I wrote the song...".

Lonnie proceeded to mesmerize us recounting his story about driving in Chicago in bumper to bumper traffic one day when he noticed that the car in front of his was chasing and honking at the car ahead of it. Concerned that he may possibly be witnessing a rolling domestic(my term from my criminal defense lawyer days), Brooks watched with rapt attention as the first car made it across one of downtown Chicago's drawbridges while the second car did not. As they were now stuck by virtue of the upraised bridge, the man in the car in front of him leaped out and ran to the rail screaming "Baby! Please..You Got What My Body Needs". Lonnie said he immediately recognized he had to write a song with that lyric. Another version of "You Got What My Body Needs" would eventually appear on his "Bayou Lightning" album.

I know everyone within earshot felt as awe struck as I was to hear that incredible story from the man himself only to have the spell broken by the manager of the headline act, an asshole Englishman whose name will go unmentioned, who proceeded to unceremoniously throw everyone out of the trailer to make room for the asshole and his porn star girlfriend. We then carried our discussion outside in the backstage area sipping keg beer and trading their favorite firsthand story about this Englishman being an asshole of which Curtis Salgado won the competition hands down regaling us with his story, when as a singer in the early Robert Cray Band, they had opened a West Coast tour for the English asshole and walked off the tour after three shows because every night they stole the show and then before the next show Mr. Asshole's manager would relay their punishments: they could not use the headlines sound system , then lights and finally decreed they could not use their horn player to which Robert said F You and walked.

As delicious as I found these stories and revelled in the animosity for this old, washed up English blues wannabe, it is important to note Mr. Brooks was nowhere in site. It is just not in his nature to say something unkind of anyone, even if they are a complete, insecure jerk. Now that's the definition of a class act: Mr. Lonnie Brooks.

Now fast forward some thirty years to June 11, 2011 and Minneapolis where the Lonnie Brooks Blues Band is headlining the Famous Daves Blues Fest. Before Brooks' performance was an always fun set of zydeco, funk and soul by Louisiana's Chubby Carrier Band whose highlights included the customary "Zydeco Boogaloo" (known to all Roomful fans) and zydeco versions of War's "Cisco Kid" and the theme to television's "The Jeffersons" aka "Moving on Up". It should be noted that Carrier had won a much deserved Grammy this year only to find out it would be the genres last as they were discontinuing the category. Shame on the Grammys. However, I can't say I am much surprised by this sell-out organization's conduct anymore.

As good as Carrier's performance was, the best was truly yet to come. When he eventually took the stage, after three blistering warm-up numbers led by his son and guitarist Wayne Baker Brooks, Lonnie took the stage dressed nattily in cowboy shirt and gray cowboy hat. Although I was prepared for seeing an artist in decline due to the great equalizer, age, Mr. Brooks showed no signs of it and still I am in disbelief when I looked up his age as this was not the performance of a 77 year old. Still in fine form, including strong voice, great guitar playing and even dance moves, Lonnie had everyone in the crowd thinking to themselves "...boy I hope I am like that at his age...". The highlight for me came early in his set when, of course, he played the iconic "You Got What My Body Needs" complete with extended guitar dual with Wayne that had the crowd shaking their heads and muttering in disbelief. If you have never had the pleasure, you must see Lonnie Brooks because after 30 years he still has what Blues Lovers need!

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