Monday, March 31, 2014

Jimmie Vaughn & the Tilt A Whirl Band @ the Dakota March 24, 2014: Blues Masters Emeritus

The music genre of blues has become something of a cliche the last couple of decades.  There are so many mediocre blues bands populated by well-intentioned but mediocre musicians that I almost have given up going out to see live blues music.  There is a saying among some of my musician friends that anyone can play the blues but very few people play the blues well.  Blues is an art form that reveals a phony and has disdain for wannabes.  In blues, authenticity is mandatory and tone is everything.  Perhaps no one on the circuit today understands this concept better than Jimmie Vaughn and his band of consummate blues veterans, the Tilt A Whirl Band.

This comes as no surprise to anyone familiar with the long and storied career of Mr. Vaughn.  Growing up in Dallas Vaughn sucked up his state's rich history of great blues music like a sponge.  From the jump blues of T-Bone Walker to the gritty blues realism of artists like Larry Davis or the R and B sophistication of Bobby Bland, the latter two on the Houston based Duke label, Jimmie was blessed with impeccable taste and a strong sense of the genre's historical .roots, which to blues fans is a must.  The real trick comes in striking the right balance between authenticity, tone and an acknowledgement of the blues musical roots on the one hand, all the while keeping it relevant and contemporary without losing its dangerous edginess. Getting the balance down right is the difference between being an archivist or revivalist aping the same old tired standards with all the passion of one of those mechanical animal bands at a kid's pizza palace and the feeling that only good music gives you:  A feeling that you are alive and are hearing something so unique, so important, it's revolutionary.

I can still remember the day I purchased "What's the Word" from the little record store on the first level of Coffman Union and hurrying back to my dorm room to turn it on and turn it up, way up.  I had never heard anything like it; these cats were channeling authentic blues with the ferocity of a punk band.  For a time it seemed like the T-Birds were in town every few month and we made it a point to never miss a show.  

 From the early days (i.e. Keith Ferguson on bass) at venues like the Union Bar, it was not unusual to share a table with members of some of the Twin Cities biggest bands of the day, who had moved their gigs so that they could come pay their respects by being in attendance.  As the crowds grew larger and the venues bigger we went along for the ride. Whether it was an outdoor Bar B Que festival or the St. Paul Winter Carnival Jimmie and the T-Birds would tear the place apart.   For months after the latter gig at the old St Paul Civic Center Theater I told anyone who would listen how Jimmie stole the show.

Then there was backstage at the Minnesota State Fair where the T-Birds warmed up for "Make a Buck" Chuck Berry.  The ever gracious Chuck Leavell was holding down keyboards for the T-Birds at the time and had just finished shooting Hail Hail Rock and Roll, the tribute film organized by Keith Richards and Eric Clapton in honor of Berry's 60th birthday.  I was telling Chuck Leavell that my friend who was playing bass for Berry that night was a hardcore bop jazz bassist and was unfamiliar with Mr. Berry or his body of work.  I even had to lend my jazz buddy a copy of Berry's Great 28 on Chess so he could familiarize himself and the other on-call musicians who made up the backing band, with the material.  To top it off, Berry blew off the rehearsal that afternoon only giving the band a 20 second reception prior to hitting the stage.

So while Jimmie, Fran, Kim and Preston retreated into one of the trailers provided by the State Fair as dressing rooms to decompress (and do some fishing as Lowell George would say), Chuck L.was downright giddy as he hung out with my date and I, regaling us with stories of how difficult Mr. Berry was to make a movie with as we watched Chuck Berry throw a tantrum at the bewildered and unprepared side men.  My impression of the legendary Chuck Berry was about the same as the waitress who after getting punched in the face by an extremely drunk and obnoxious John Lennon said something to the effect  "The black eye does not hurt as much as finding out one of your idols is a real asshole".

What?  Oh yeah, Jimmie Vaughn and the Tilt A Whirl Band at the Dakota.  If you are unfamiliar with Jimmie's work post T-Birds and Family project with his brother, he has come into his own as a singer and front man.  While never a great singer, Jimmie's vocals have improved dramatically over his first attempts as a singer and he has a good handle on the limitations of his voice.  Consequently he really shines on material that calls for a Guitar Slim or Guitar Junior aka early Lonnie Brooks style vocals. My personal favorite is the title track to one of his recent projects "The Pleasure is All Mine", great songwriting , great vocals and nails the tone so much so you would bet your life it was from Excello circa late 50's. 

By mixing in instrumentals which showcases his phenomenal Tilt A Whirl Band and then bringing out Lou Ann Barton to help with the vocal chores mid set, Jimmie strikes a good balance that makes for a top notch show.  Lou Ann and Jimmie's voices complement each other nicely.  Especially strong was their performance on “In the Middle of the Night" which I always thought was a standard but actually is an original.

Speaking of the Tilt A Whirl Band, the musicians Vaughn has assembled for this latest carnation reads like an All Star roster.  Leading off and playing saxophone is Roomful of Blues and Duke Robillard Band alum Doug "Mr. Low" James.  Doug along with incredible trombonist Mike Ritna play as an ensemble like few horn sections other than say Roomful or the Uptown Horns know how.  The sound and timing with which these two horn players are able to fill the room like a whole section is reminiscent of the Memphis Horns (God bless you Andrew!).  Anchoring the Tilt A Whirl band is the great George Rains (Doug Sahm, Boz Skaggs etc.) on drums and the excellent Billy Horton on bass.  Last but not least also on guitar was Billy Pittman who makes Jimmies life much easier by holding down the fort rhythmically so he can launch into one of his blistering guitar runs.

A well-received show by an enthusiastic audience and an appreciative band that came back for three encores. Memorable highlights included Jimmie's version of T-Birds standard Roll Roll Roll, several interesting instrumentals like Greenbacks and Tilt A Whirl and the solo acoustic tribute to his little brother Six Strings Down.  A strong performance by one of the Blues Masters.

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