Blues at Logan I
I found a table just outside the main performance hall in the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts. It was time to enjoy my BLT and avocado (a trendy food these days when served on toasted bread) sandwich before tonight’s performance began. Turns out, the sound check had just ended. One of the participants walked out of the hall, telling another that the hall was built for tonight’s performers, Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton and Chris Thomas King. “Tomorrow,” he warned, “things will be a bit messier, when the hall goes electric—paraphrased.” So right this crew member was about tonight’s performers. The sound resonated, gaining sustenance from the lush wood paneling.
Opening the concert was 29-year old Jerron”Blind Boy” Paxton, who was born in the Watts district of Los Angeles, but picked up his Louisiana-born grandparent’s musical heritage. And did he pick it up. Paxton is an extremely accomplished musician, playing guitar, banjo, Mississippi saxophone, and violin. Sometimes country blues can make for an academic endeavor, but not when Paxton is on the stage. He has a charistmatic presence, a sense of humor, and a very rich voice. Rarely have I seen a performer take such command of a stage. Without doubt, he should have a solo run on Broadway. He is Americana incarnate, and he is damn funny, particularly when an unspoken thought pops into his, which leads to a pause and then laughter bellowing from Jerron’s large frame.
Not surprisingly, we heard a wonderful rendition of Reverend Gary Davis’ Hesitation Blues, a tune that Hot Tuna popularized long ago. Paxton has performed at Jorma Kaukonen’s Fur Peace ranch, so no surprise that he would opt for this number. For those who don’t know, Kaukonen, along with Jack Cassidy, founded Hot Tuna.
We also heard a number, or at least snippets of it, that Maria Muldaur popularized long ago, Don’t You Feel My Leg. I thought it was a David Bromberg tune, but it probably goes much farther back in time. Like Muldaur and Bromberg, Paxton is recycling the past while making it his own.
I had seen Paxton before, but sans piano. Midway through the set, he headed to the Steinway first played by the late and much beloved Willie Pickens on the same stage, but before construction of the Logan Center had even been completed. While Paxton wasn’t playing strictly ragtime, he sure brought Reginald Robinson to mind.
Earlier, we heard him imitate a Model T Ford’s horn, as well as train whistles from various railway lines that ceased to exist long ago. Somewhere in the middle of the set, Paxton told us that we should pay particular attention to what comes before “baby” at the end of each line in Mississippi blues songs. According to Paxton, “baby” was really the means to hide the true meaning of the song, which often involved complaints about and criticism of the planation masters. I’ll never hear “baby” the same way again. Sort of like the old game of adding “in bed” at the end of the fortune inside the cookie.
After a 15-minute intermission, tonight’s headliner, Chris Thomas King, took the stage, with guitar and harmonica holder in place. King grew up in Louisiana, where his father, Tabby Thomas, ran a juke joint. King went into the family business, eventually being discovered by a Smithsonian Institute folklorist, which led to recordings on Chris Strachwitz’s Arhoolie Records. In the 1980s King abandoned folk blues, opting to take on hip hop.
But folk blues didn’t abandon King, who ended up playing a bluesman named Tommy Johnson in the Coen brother’s movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? He won one of his two Grammy awards for the accompanying soundtrack.
Well, tonight was a case where fame and accolades got the headliner his top bill, but the performance didn’t warrant it. The tell: King paid a somewhat begrudging compliment to Paxton. Begrudging? I’d say so. King couldn’t remember Paxton’s name, and when he finally did, he referred to him as just “Paxton,” as if King had never heard of Jerron before.
King certainly is a talented musician, playing harp, piano, guitar, and slide guitar during this 70+ minute set. His slide playing was excellent, but much too loud. His singing at times was good, but at other times he ventured into sophistic balladry, even performing a tune by Elton John without any hint of the blues. Nothing necessary wrong with John, but not in this setting.
No doubt Paxton should have been the headliner. He completely upstaged King, who at times was just plain boring.
Following the performance, King sat down with James Porter for an interview. King revealed that he is writing a book about the blues. He claims that the Smithsonian folklorists have it all wrong. The blues did not originate in the Mississippi Delta. Also, according to King, the blues is not derived from African music. One member of the audience disputed the claim during the Q & A session.
Earlier in the evening, Chicago legendary blues guitarist John Primer performed as people dined on sandwiches from the excellent Cafe Logan. Primer represents one of the last direct connections to the players who electrified the blues Chicago style. He has worked with Willie Dixon, Junior Wells, Lonnie Brooks, Sammy Lawhorn, Magic Slim, Buddy Guy, and Muddy Waters.
[Click on an Image to Enlarge It]
Post Script: Every person I spoke with over the course of the weekend who mentioned Friday night’s concert was in total agreement with me. Everyone was totally knocked out by Jerron Paxton. They all agreed he should have been the headliner.
Just Like Bygone Days: A College Bulletin Board on the 8th Floor of the Logan Center
Chris Thomas King Plays Acoustic Guitar
All Smiles, Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton
Checking the Key
Now the Violin
And He Got Caught in the Spotlight
The Legendary John Primer in Cafe Logan
Photographer’s Note: The media folks placed a 3-song limit on the authorized photographers. Sadly, both Paxton and King took to the piano after the 3-long limit have been exceeded, so no photographs exist of those performances—at least I have none. Of course, there were the a-holes in the audience recording the entire concert on their iPhones, which is a clear copyright violation, but they don’t care.