Doug MacLeod Shows Why He’s One of the Righteous Blues Prophets
Under the Radar Music Group threw a party last night in Minneapolis to celebrate the label’s latest release, “Doug MacLeod: Live in Europe” and celebrate they did! As anyone lucky enough to be in attendance at this gem of a music cafe on the banks of the Mississippi River in the St. Anthony Falls district of Minneapolis will tell you. It was a special night all around as the crowd was treated to the honor of witnessing one of America’s finest blues songwriters, guitarists and singer/philosophers who was fresh off from winning a Blues Music Award for Blues Acoustic Artist of the Year.
Last night MacLeod showed no signs of resting on his laurels. Playing a solo acoustic set wherein he showcased some of the mostly original material off his latest release, the afore mentioned “Live In Europe” before being joined by local Minneapolis legend Jeff Arundel and his band to perform a song they just recorded the night before at Arundel’s studio.
As someone who prides himself on his knowledge of blues music, somehow Mr. MacLeod had managed to fly under my radar, but no more. Recently a friend at work drew my attention to the mystical Hasidic Judaism belief known as Tzadikim Nistarim or the hidden righteous ones. Being Lutheran I was totally unfamiliar with this widely held belief in Judaism that there exist 36 righteous people whose role in life is to justify the purpose of humankind in the eyes of God. Watching Doug MacLeod perform the blues last night I could not help but think that Doug MacLeod is a Tzadik Nistar or one of the righteous ones whose role in life, like that of his mentors, Pee Wee Crayton, George Harmonica Smith and Big Joe Turner, just to name a few, is to justify the purpose of the blues in the eyes of humankind, which purpose, as far as the blues are concerned, is to overcome adversity with a sense of joy and good humor.
While this may sound like over the top rhetoric to the uninitiated, as anyone familiar with Doug MacLeod’s career knows, it does not even begin to scratch the surface. No stranger to adversity, Doug MacLeod overcame adversities in both his personal and professional lives and isn’t shy about sharing with his audience the hard won lessons from those struggles. In a genre that is so often misunderstood by some as being too maudlin on the one hand or too macho (e.g. “I’m A Man”) on the other, MacLeod reminds us that the blues isn’t about wallowing in self-pity but rather the joy in overcoming it and he is the true embodiment of what it is to be a man. Be yourself, stay positive and try to find the humor in life, especially when life’s fortunes takes its inevitable downturns. If you can do that, keep your perspective and embrace change life will get better if that is what you make it.
Just as he struggled with a difficult childhood, when he became an adult and chose being a blues musician for a profession he was faced with a dual race barrier. When performing on the road with the great African American blues artists, as a member of their entourage he was often faced with some of the same Jim Crow laws as they were. While it obviously pales in comparison with what the African Americans had to put up with there was the separate subtle disadvantage of being taken seriously as a white musician in what some would consider an art form most closely associated with blacks. Now the above is strictly my analysis as Doug clearly states that he was humbled by the way his African American mentors and colleagues treated him as if race and racism did not exist. Clearly MacLeod and his generation benefited from the careers of early jazz and big band race pioneers like Rosalind Cron and Porky Cohen, who broke the reverse race barriers in the 1940’s as white members of black bands the Sweethearts of Rhythm and the Lucky Millinder Orchestra. MacLeod followed in their footsteps a couple decades later and had the talent and good fortune to have played with many of the greats. MacLeod tells his audiences that it was both an honor and humbling to be accepted by the legends of blues, not as a white guitarist but as a blues songwriter and guitarist period. His songs have been covered by the likes of Albert King and Albert Collins. This is a man whose son’s godfather was Pee Wee Crayton and Doug was a pallbearer at Big Joe Turner’s funeral (although, ever the humble one, Doug adds only because their mutual friend Pee Wee predeceased Joe).
But enough history let me tell you about the show. Opening with the title track off his acclaimed 1997 Album on Audioquest, “You Can’t Take My Blues”, MacLeod set the song up with a discussion on how we are all are unique individuals and how important it is in life to learn how to be ourselves and be comfortable with that. Once he began playing, MacLeod quickly demonstrated why he is the consummate touring acoustic blues act. Striking the perfect mixture of conversation, singing and playing MacLeod tailored his performance to the size of the room and mood of the audience so that his sound was never over powering or competing with the crowd noise yet he could rein in the audience at will with dynamics to emphasize a somber passage with the subtlest of licks from his National guitar. With every song MacLeod had either a message about one of life’s hard learned lessons or a story to tell. On a good night the blues raconteur leaves the audience spellbound and Friday night was one of those nights. I was so mesmerized by both the message and performance that I forgot to take a photo or even fiddle with my smart phone.
Introducing the next number with an explanation as to the meaning of the expression from which it takes its title, “Your Bread Ain’t Done”, which in the parlance of St. Louis street vernacular circa 1950’s meant you were a little crazy or half baked. As this original of his was covered by the great Albert King, Doug reminded the audience how much he admired Albert’s unique singing voice as well as his guitar playing. This resonated with me as well since I was always struck by the fearless, unashamed vulnerability in the singing voice of such a large, intimidating man.
Things got a little poignant with the next number , a version of “Cold Rain” off of the new release “Live in Europe” which Doug explained in the set up to the song. “Cold Rain” is about when you are in a relationship and when you wake up in the morning and look outside, no matter the weather , feels like it’s going to be a cold , wet and stormy day, that relationship is over and life is telling you to get out of it and move on down the road. If you do and you stay true to yourself, in a couple years you will find yourself in a new relationship and the sun will shine again. A simple truth spoken by a wise man.
Next up was “Raylene” an up tempo number that let Doug stretch a little with his incredible slide playing on his National guitar. As the character in the song, “Raylene”, is from Baton Rouge I could not resist from asking Doug after the show if he gets to Baton Rouge much and when he indicated he did I had to ask him the question I have been asking people the last 17 years: “Have you ever heard of a little roadhouse right off the main interstate connecting Houston with New Orleans close to the Baton Rouge exits called Aunt Sara’s?”
A friend of mine who is now deceased and I stopped there in 1999 after seeing a billboard advertising that the owner use to cook Cajun boils for the Kennedy and Johnson White House. We were the only patrons that afternoon and had the best meal and most delightful time exchanging stories with the woman bartender, we truly hated to leave. The weird thing about it is no one I have talked to in the last 17 years had ever heard of it and I was seriously questioning my sanity. It was like an episode of the twilight zone.
Before Doug could spit out the words I have become so accustomed to (“never heard of it”) Doug’s manager, and the head of Under the Radar Music Group, (the label “Live in Europe” is on) and the most amazing music industry professional, Miki Mulvihill, over heard my question and to my utter astonishment assures me Aunt Sara’s did exist but sadly went the way of many businesses post Katrina era storms.
But I digress, Doug followed “Raylene” with the title track of his 1997 release “Unmarked Road” an iconic blues number with more killer slide work which leads us to the next number and a rare cover song, Doug’s version of the old Bukka White train song “Panama Limited” which Doug says “goes exactly like this” but calls his version the “New Panama Limited”. This number is also on the new release “Live in Europe” and Doug sets it up with the funniest story of the evening about performing the song in Germany. I won’t ruin it here but instead insist you go see Doug live and hear the story from the raconteur himself.
Following the lengthy Panama “unlimited” (sorry the German in me) was one of my highlights of the evening, an absolutely stellar version of the title track to his 2012 release “Brand New Eyes”. The version he did last night with the great lyrics, beautiful phrasing and the most beautiful, subtle melodic and rhythmic guitar accompanying it, the only thing that comes to mind and this is an imperfect comparison, is Lowell George circa “Roll Um Easy” and “Fool Yourself”. Needless to say I was beyond impressed and downright smitten.
As if things couldn’t get any better, that is when Doug pulls the clincher for me, he tells a Big Joe Turner story, one of my absolute heroes and tells of how late in his career the great Kansas City Blues Shouter and absolute force of nature was reduced by age to walking out on stage with assistance and taking a chair to perform. But as I personally witnessed in the summer of 1982, when the music started a spark would light up in Big Joe’s eyes and that great voice would return only slightly diminished. But eventually the body becomes so broke that a time comes when we have to “Send the Soul On Home”. Something Doug literally did as a pall bearer at Big Joe Turner’s funeral. “Send the Soul On Home” was the name of a song that first appeared on his “Live in 1991” album but he had just recorded a new version the night before at Jeff Arundel’s studio in Minneapolis. Jeff and his band then joined Doug along with his band consisting of Jeff Arundel and Pat Frederick on guitars, Kale Reed on bass and Ben Peterson on drums and they just killed it. Not only was this a new arrangement for Doug but completely new as far as Jeff and his band were concerned, yet the way they worked with Doug, giving each other space, playing just right for the room and with the same beautiful natural tone that Doug plays in was simply a tribute to their professionalism as musicians. Pat Frederick’s beautiful lead acoustic guitar work on “Send the Soul On Home” gave me goosebumps.
Jeff and his band then performed a short set which included the Rumsfeldesqe (joking) “Know What I Know” and a song Jeff performed at Harmon Killibrew’s funeral which goes to show you how well Jeff is respected in Minnesota. Being ever the gentleman, Jeff then invited Doug back up for several more numbers, a perfect ending to a most memorable night.