“The best songs don’t get recorded, the best recordings don’t get released, the best releases don’t get played.” – Jim Dickinson
Schooley’s corollary to Dickinson’s Law: “The best shows don’t get seen.”
I am in a van with Walter Daniels and Ted Roddy, two excellent Austin harmonica players, driving down a rainy Texas highway in the dark. It’s cold, and not just “cold for Texas,” but actually cold. Temperatures are in the 30s. Sure, people will probably have to turn on their a/c in a few days, but tonight actually feels like winter.
Walter is talking about an episode of Bar Rescue, the bar-revamp reality show. Host Jon Taffer was trying to turn around a failing bar that had made the financially disastrous mistake of featuring blues music every night. Walter laughs: “He told the bar owners, ‘We’ve done some research, and blues music is the favorite music of only 3% of the U.S. population!’” Taffer recommended that the bar change their musical focus to turn business around. Walter laughs again. “I’m glad I devoted my life to a musical form that NINETY-SEVEN PERCENT of the population DOESN’T CARE ABOUT!”
We are driving to the little town of Manchaca, to see a free show by a musician who once played in the band of one of the greatest blues musicians ever. Paul Oscher, who once backed up MUDDY FUCKING WATERS, now plays a secret gig for free most Tuesday evenings in a little bar-b-q joint in Manchaca. The show is a word-of-mouth thing, Oscher can play to bigger crowds for more money elsewhere. But Railroad BBQ is just down the street from Oscher’s house, so he started doing low-profile gigs there for practice. No advertising. Seems like this should be a bigger deal to me. When I was a young and idealistic music fan, just getting into the blues, I wouldn’t have thought that you could have played with the likes of Muddy Waters and then play Tuesday nights from 7-10 in a town with a population of just over 1,000 people without everybody knowing about it.
Railroad BBQ, as the name suggests, is a little plywood-and-tarpaper shack next to the railroad tracks. The plastic letters on the portable sign in the parking lost announce “LIVE BLUES MUSIC” as we pull in. We joke about drivers hitting the accelerator and speeding up when they see it, lest they hear this maligned musical art form, which also happens to be our favorite. We are proud members of the 3%.
The last time I came to see Oscher, the place was packed, and you could barely get a table. But the weather seems to have kept the rest of the Texas 3% at home tonight (this is a documentary, actually). We get a table right in front, and I head to the counter to order a rib plate. The ‘cue at Railroad is good. Also, the joint is chilly – no heat on a cold night, perhaps a plus for fans of “authenticity.”
We ventured out tonight despite the non-Texas weather because friend and record producer Mike Mariconda tipped us off that another Muddy harp man, Jerry Portnoy, was going to show up tonight. Mariconda is recording Spanish blues combo the Suitcase Brothers in Austin. The Suitcase Brothers flew Portnoy in from Boston to play on their record.
Portnoy made a three-disc harmonica instruction set that I bought when I decided to get serious about the instrument. Walter Daniels, designated driver this evening, is one of the guys who inspired me to play harmonica in the first place, and Portnoy literally taught me how. And tonight maybe I get to meet Portnoy, with Walter! Fun!
Portnoy dropping in is a big deal, because rumor has it that Portnoy and Oscher haven’t seen each other in what – ten years? Twenty? Longer? A long time, anyway. They might jam together, which would be something to see. TWO harmonica players who played for MUDDY FUCKING WATERS jamming! Inexplicably, James Cotton now lives in Manchaca, too. He was at the last Oscher gig I saw. If Cotton turns up again, THREE Muddy harp men in the same room! Exciting! (I mean, it would be, if you cared about that shit. But if you are like 97% of the U.S. population, you probably don’t.)
Alas, Cotton is nowhere in sight, but Oscher’s set is underway. He plays guitar, harmonica, and piano, and stomps his feet on the tiny stage. Kind of a one man band thing, which I can appreciate. Tonight a stand-up bass player is sitting in, doesn’t seem like he’s played with Oscher before, but it doesn’t matter. Oscher’s guitar playing is superb, but his harp is outta control. He plays in a rack, but he has some kind of crazy mic and amp setup that lets him get a thick, distorted tone as though he were playing it cupped. Oscher’s rack harp tone is MONSTROUS.
After some gnarly guitar and harp action, Oscher slides over to the piano for some weirdo, almost Monk-like keyboard stabs. He is in the middle of a song when Mariconda arrives with the Suitcase Brothers and Jerry Portnoy. Nobody’s here so there is an open table right in front of the stage.
Portnoy is grinning and holding the collar of his coat in front of his face. Oscher doesn’t recognize him at first, and then Portnoy lets his coat fall aside and starts laughing. Oscher fumbles at the piano, stops mid-song and shouts: “MOTHERFUCKER! You made me forget the words!”
Oscher finishes the song, and then introduces Portnoy. The energy level of the show kicks up a notch. Oscher wants to show off for Portnoy. Cool – we get to watch. “Did you see my do that T-Bone Walker number?” he asks. No, you played that before we walked in. Okay, Oscher will play it again. The rest of the set is a blur as Oscher rules the stage, and Portnoy laughs. Oscher starts telling a story about their days in Chicago while Portnoy is in the back getting a beer, he yells from the back “That’s not how it happened! Tell it right!” Oscher replies, “It’s my fucking show! I’ll tell it how I want!” Everybody is having a good time.
The story is about how they made some extra cash running a scam game of three card monte on the streets of Chicago. Fucking three card monte. It strikes me how these guys had lives as far removed from that of the average millennial in 2014 as the lives those 60s folkies were distant from the original bluesmen they “rediscovered.” Where are the equivalents of those 60s folk kids today? Hell, I’m one of the younger people in this “crowd” (using the term loosely), and I’m not even young.
Looking around tonight, you can see part of the reason blues music is only the favorite music of 3% of the U.S. population. As with rockabilly, I like the original stuff, but most modern interpretations are not my cup of tea, and the fans can be annoying. But with rockabilly fans, say what you will, at least they are well dressed. Blues fans seem to have claimed the greying ponytail, Hawaiian shirt, and maybe a fedora with a Les Paul lapel pin as uniform.
Some kids are always looking for a way to rebel, stand out from their peers, forge a unique identity. Maybe before they would have done that with punk rock, but c’mon, there was a Green Day musical on Broadway for chrissakes. Hip hop? It’s been is mainstream for decades, Jay Z went to the goddamn White House. Hey kids, want to make your parents uncomfortable? Alienate your peers? Distance yourself from arbiters of good taste? Look into blues music. Tip from your pal Schooley.
In the second set, Oscher brings Portnoy up to jam. Portnoy has to play his harp through a vocal mic, while Oscher has his magical neck rack amp setup, so it is not a fair fight. Portnoy blows a few bars acoustic, then Oscher counters with that THICK tone and it is like bringing a knife to a bazooka fight. A comedy act. Portnoy looks over with a “You’ve gotta be fucking kidding me” look that is priceless. He’s stuck playing straight man to Oscher’s hijinks and he knows it, like Margaret Dumont to Groucho. But the twenty or so people are excited just to get to see two Muddy harp men share the stage for a song, something that hasn’t happened in decades. Historic!
It strikes me that something like this should have been a bigger deal. Austin has institutions supposedly devoted to “cultural” events, but take one look at the Long Center schedule and tell me if you think they’d be open to promoting this particular American art form. People will pay for expensive tickets to mediocre, middlebrow, milquetoast events, but you can’t fill a room to hear two guys who played with MUDDY FUCKING WATERS cut heads. I hear about these “MacArthur Genius Grants;” shouldn’t playing with Muddy and still kicking ass all these years later qualify you for a grant of some kind? Something?
Of course, it wasn’t until the Stones and other Brit bands made a big deal out of guys like Muddy Waters that the majority of Americans in the 60s even decided to give a shit. Now, it’s the same thing all over again. The only reason Portnoy was in town was to record with Spanish blues duo the Suitcase Brothers. Victor, the harmonica side of the duo, is an exceptional player who has that Sonny Terry thing down like nobody I’ve seen. Had it not been for the Europeans, this little reunion of American blues musicians would not have occurred.
The Suitcase Brothers play later in the week at the White Swan, and I’m there, but once again, the crowd is sparse. Another great show that nobody saw. But that’s how it goes when you are devoted to America’s least-loved art form.
I hear the Suitcase Brothers play to bigger crowds in Europe.