It’s Friday night and in dozens of American cities fans make their way to a blues dive. It could be Chicago, or St. Louis, or Austin, but in this case for me it’s Buffalo, where the guitarist is as brilliant and soulful as Clapton and arguably as skilled. He goes by Willie but his last name is Polish. The girl singer—only garage-band-sophisticated on rhythm guitar—could, however, have taught Janis Joplin some things about using the microphone. And the drummer, likely as good as any drummer you can name, holds down a day job grinding axels at the Ford plant. Flush with talent, practiced and at ease, and unknown outside the city, the band should be front page news if the world could boast of any justice.
Inside the familiar twelve-chord progression that guides, constrains, and liberates the blues, the Stratocaster soars and the inspired voice echoes of the field-hollers of the antebellum South. The audience, schooled, appreciative, and lit on $3.50 drafts, nods wisely at the riffs, tips an ear at the downbeat, and smiles at the vocal theatrics when the band plays “Red House.”
The picture takes shape as a mixture of mellow and edge. A salt and pepper audience features a half-dozen grizzled bikers, a couple of lawyers, several weary inner city teachers, a grain shoveler, a James Joyce scholar and theater impresario, one or two suits from the mayor’s office (their heads up North, but their hearts way down South), and an old timer whose face I know—a timpanist or a retired prosecutor, I can’t recall which. In the foreground a listener too young to remember Elmore James (whose portrait hangs enlarged and reverent on the wall) leans against the billiard table. Elegant in Zuni turquoise charms and silver filigree on the leather vest that says “Phoenix Indomitable,” she courts minor disfavor with the barkeep for resting a pale ale on the felt. She sweeps up the glass, smiles in half apology, and resumes grooving, hips marking time. To complete the scene, sketch in an aspiring guitarist nearby whose fingers twitch along to mimic the key change on air-guitar. He’s also thinking an embodied thought: “I could play that.” Mirror-neuron circuits fired up, he’s feeling “I’m already playing that.”
At the House of Blues it’s Friday night, the enthusiasts have composed themselves companionably to savor the blues. They’ve earned the respite; they’re ready to listen; together they’re ready to play.