Harmonica Bob and Near Blind James’ Vacuum Cleaner Hospital Blues
Even if you’re not Little Richard, belting out a raucous version of “Kansas City” in the parking lot of Chapel Hill’s Vacuum Cleaner Hospital on a sunny pre-spring afternoon will get you some attention. But when you tear through the first verse in Spanish, its a real traffic-stopper.
It’s a tough crowd. Free bar-b-q under a big tent with all the lemonade and cookies you can eat is a considerable distraction. But Harmonica Bob and Near Blind James have played this gig annually for the past 30 years. The duo met as teens in their native Greenville, and have been together musically in some form ever since. Vacuum Cleaner Hospital owner Tom Proctor has been friends with Bob since were boy scouts together nearly 40 years ago.
If you’re looking for adulation, this gig might bring you up short. Most folks browse the vacuums, scarf up the food and go. But the music is well worth sticking around for. Harmonica Bob (Waldrop) and Near Blind James (Shoe), aided by Tony Stiglitz on drums and Ben Palmer on bass, laid down a two hour set of soulful blues rock as fine as you’d find outside any hospital or inside any juke joint.
Although it’s in the 12 bar blues family, Guitar Slim’s “The Things I Used To Do” is real close to swamp pop, a hint of Little Richard trying to break out in the vocals, but bound to the blues with Near Blind’s laconic steel string-pulling.
Metal picks adorning his fingers, James’ chicken pickin’ is as clean as a manicured hen with smooth, buffed talons, strutting and cacklin’ through Slim Harpo’s “Scratch My Back.”
Harmonica Bob ain’t no Peggy Lee clone, but he gets the job done on her signature tune, “Fever.” It’s an interesting arrangement, James playing a folky accompaniment reminiscent of Josh White’s “One Meatball,” with Bob’s hi and lonesome harp wailin’ in the background, making the setting seem more roadhouse than cabaret. And in an apparent tribute to the venue, Bob finishes off the last few bars humming like a well-tuned vacuum.
The band rips into Sticks McGhee’s “Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee,” Bob cutting loose with an eruption of rockabilly hiccups to shake things up a bit.
Bob’s a few octaves higher than Howling Wolf on “Smokestack Lightnin’,” but he gets the message across even if his howls are in a higher register.
Now about that “Kansas City” thing. Bob says a former bassist said, ‘Man, I’m sick of that song’ when Bob called it up a few gigs back.“What if I do it in Spanish?’ Bob asked, and an unruly set list star was born. Bob has had some practice warbling in Spanish when he jumped in with the dance band at his wedding reception in Puerto Rico reception to rattle off a few numbers in their native tongue. But for an Anglo audience, it’s a literal head scratcher. You can almost see the thought balloons with question marks in them floating over people’s heads, faces all scrunched up as they try to figure out why that melody sounds so familiar and the vocals so alien. But there’s one notable exception. One young Latino leaps to his feat, clapping delightedly at the unorthodox juxtaposition of cultures.
Bob has been the principal singer for most of the set, but James steps up and delivers some deep dish soul on “I Need Your Love So Bad.” Fleetwood Mac’s Peter Green had a hit with it in ’68, but the ’55 original was by Little Willie John, written by older brother Merlis. James’ version is closer to Green’s version; slower, more mellow and racked with anguished soul, the cheesy Mac violins replaced with James’ gospel-tinged, soulful guitar.
A shimmery take on Slim Harpo’s “Tippin’ In” celebrates fishnet hose and smokey dives, James’ licks drenched in reverb but still clean, Bob dirtying up the joint with some low down harp moans.
The band agitates the chickens again, but this time out it’s Bob doing the cluckin’ on harp with Louis Jordan’s “Early In the Mornin’.” Everybody gets to shine on this one. Palmer gets low down and funky with on his doghouse bass, and Stiglitz lays it down like Charlie Watts.
Little Walter’s’ “Business Man” is a fitting closer to the afternoon’s festivities. “I don’t need no sign / hangin’ on my door / if you need good bidness / just let me know,” Bob sings, James driving the vehicle they do bidness with to the garage for a fillup with the q they’ve watched everybody else tank up on all afternoon.
It’s been awhile since the duo performed, but there is some good news. You may not have to schedule another hospital stay and wait a year to see ’em. Bob and James are planing to rev up their personal appearance schedule a bit, playing vacuumless, bar-b-q deprived events in the near future. Stay tuned.