Adrian Duke at 54 West (Graham, NC – Feb 6, 2015)
From the name, you’d expect a sleekit cat with a soul patch, tightly wrapped in a shiny tux topped with a funky fedora with a feather in the hatband; bebop royalty or a sultan of swing. But Adrian Duke looks like he just slid off a rocky escarpment, a rough hewn slab of granite with a profile that looks like it would be at home on Mt. Rushmore. And he sounds just as stony, impassioned moans leaking from gritted teeth, lock-jawed soul that blends Stevie Winwood, Ray Charles, and John Mooney.
Although he bills himself as a jack of all trades who covers jazz and classical music as well as rock, pop, blues, and reggae, tonight he’s in a roadhouse mood befitting the former biker bar he’s presiding over this evening. 54 West is out in the country, a low-slung structure formerly known as the Pit Pass. It’s been spruced up considerably, and is a comfortable space so down home you can bring your dog and your bottle to get down with. Brown bagging, a decades-old Carolina custom allowing a customer to bring in his own liquor and pay a small corkage fee and a discounted price for setups is in effect here. Free-poured drinks from the customers’ own stashes loosen up the small but enthusiastic clientele, and from the opening notes of Professor Longhair’s “Big Chief,” the New Orleans flavored party is on, the dance floor filled with twitching participants performing interpretative dance moves. Duke has no fear of flying, taking off into the stratosphere with double handful’s of angular jazz licks during “Big Chief” before settling back down to earth for more of Fess’ rolling carnival rhythms.
Although he’s not from there, Duke says he’s “of New Orleans,” and his between-songs noodlings on piano all have a “Tipitina”-flavored Fess vibe. He’s backed by a six piece band that’s trying to knock the back wall down, a rhythm section so fierce that you can feel the floor moving under your feet from anywhere in the house.
Co-vocalist Theresa Richmond has a blast furnace delivery, and tried to scorch the paint off the walls every time she stepped up to the mike. But Duke’s gritty soul stood up to her onslaught, his rendition of Alvin “Shine” Robinson’s “Something You Got”as down and dirty as the original; glorious, miserable, bleeding, heartbroken soul.
Duke reached back to cover Louis Jordan’s ’47 classic “Early In The Mornin” pepping it up with a Fess feel.
The pianist slipped in a couple of his own compositions as well, the Leon Russel flavored “All Coming Down,” sounding like a cut off 1970’s Mad Dogs and Englishmen, rowdy rock greased with wiggly slide guitar slipping around Duke’s tinkly proclamations.
Duke put his Ray suit on for Charles’ “Night Time,” Richmond filling in for the Raylettes, Duke squeezing out soul between clenched teeth, managing to sound simultaneously agonized and excited at the prospect of what one can do with one’s love one in the dark.
Bill Withers’ “Kissing My Love” was a funk fest with a gospel feel, window-rattling fare that had dancers stomping about and cheering lustily.
After a short break to sell his CDs out of a zippered pouch emblazoned with “Human Organ For Transplant” in big red letters, he laid into more Ray Charles, once again packing the floor with shrieking celebrants on “Let’s Go Get Stoned.”
Finally, after teasing the attendees all night with between-song snippets of “Tipitina,” he launched into the song. Or maybe not. That’s what the melody sounded like, but if so, he manged to pull off a feat that even Fess in his heyday wasn’t able to do- make the entire lyrical performance indecipherable. That’s no mean feat given the hula-molla-walla-galla syntax of the original, but Duke’s version had not one recognizable word or syllable. It was an interesting presentation, potentially mind blowing even for fans of Fess’s twisted articulation.
Asked afterward if that was indeed the song, Richmond burst out laughing. “It is,” she said, “but it’s his version, his words, not anything I know.”
Duke followed that with a version of The Band’s “Ophelia” also nearly transmogrified beyond recognition, but in a good way, Duke’s gravely growl adding new depth to the tune that few would attempt after Levon’s signature drawl had been imprinted on it.
A super heavy fonk version of Billy Preston’s “Will it Go ‘Round and Circles”worked the crowd into a lather that Duke then cooled down with a rendition of Ray Charles’ version of “Georgia” that rivaled Charles’ classic soul take on the Hoagy Carmichael tune.
Duke started “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” moaning low and slow, quickly building to a high spirited, second-line street parade prance tempo that had the crowd sweating to keep up. One audience member added a bit of ambiance to the proceedings by twirling a disco ball by hand while shining a two multi-hued flashlight beams on it.
Charles was came up in the rotation once again for “Halleluiah I Love Her So,” covered on Duke’s ’05’s Live In New Orleans release. Duke some liberties with the tune, inserting some jazzy fills while the band rocked steadily around him.
There were no dogs present at this outing, but Duke and company had the humans wagging their tails to the rhythm all night long, howling with delight on a fit night out for man or beast.