Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown – Barns at Wolf Trap (Vienna, VA)
A cold and drizzly Thursday night found the Barns at Wolf Trap imbued with a bit of an early spring chill. The 18th-century barns — relocated from upstate New York more than 20 years ago and turned into a rustic cavern of timber one musician favorably likened to “playing inside an old guitar” — had the air of a concert in a church basement, with the pungent scent of coffee to strengthen the metaphor.
Low-key concertgoers — it was a near-sellout of the 350-seat hall — whispered as they stood in line for beverages and snacks; most of them were “of an age,” dressed in straight-from-work slacks and skirts, and as sober and somber a crowd as possible. This is a listening room, one of the best in the land, and the patrons came with clear reverence to experience the wit and riffs of Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown.
He did not disappoint. He’s been at it since 1947, and it took him mere minutes to raise the temperature of the room to where jackets and ties were hastily removed. The applause and calls from the audience rose in volume and frequency as well.
Brown, preternaturally thin and dressed in a black cowboy outfit with a cell phone hanging where a pistol would have been, put on a two-set clinic for would-be guitarists who were there to “snatch my licks,” as a suspicious Brown chided the crowd (which was fairly snatcher-free; only a half-dozen raised their hands when he asked how many guitarists where present).
But if you were going to steal a lick, here’s some advice: Get yourself a vintage Gibson Firebird electric guitar with a leather pick guard and grow fingers as long and straight as the branches on plum trees. Brown’s method of pickless playing involves every digit of both hands; he frets with his left hand over and around the capo while strumming and picking with his right hand, keeping the fingers unnaturally rigid and straight.
And then you need a sense of music. Brown’s band, Gate’s Express (Eric Demmer on alto sax, Joe Krown on keyboards, David Peters on drums and Harold Floyd on bass) was on time on every downbeat, from the easy riffs of an instrumental “Unchained Melody” (highlighted by a segue from a palm-slapping solo into a full-band blowout in a tropical mode) to the honky-tonk of his longtime standard “Dark End Of The Hallway”, in which he ditched the guitar for a fiddle and proceeded to coax high-pitched whistling tones from it.
With all those instruments mere feet away from the audience, it could have sounded like a collapsing wall of noise. Instead, thanks to production manager Bob Grimes, a veteran of more than 2,000 performances at the space, Gatemouth Brown sounded like a veteran Texas musician verifying his legacy.