The Mississippi Sheiks Tribute rocks Vancouver with a concert for the ages
The Mississippi Sheiks Tribute Concert
Featuring Steve Dawson, John Hammond, Jim Byrnes, Van Dyke Parks and many more
Capilano University Theatre, March 14, 2010
Review by Douglas Heselgrave
Gritty,unwashed and real. The blues saved American popular music from the saccharine whitewash of the nineteen fifties. For young people growing up in the suburbs, the blues and its tales of hasty retreats out the back door, wife stealing preachers and men who solved arguments at the end of a smoking gun offered another way of seeing and experiencing life for a sheltered generation. So, when burgeoning musicians like Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page and Janis Joplin reached back into the blues lexicon to give language, shape and form to the dreams of post war youth coming of age, they were extending the language of what was possible to express in a song, not intentionally building a new set of musical clichés. Nearly fifty years later, the blues has lost its bite, and has been used to sell everything from new cars to presidents. Shifting uncomfortably under the weight of its restrictive forms and cultural baggage, it’s a means of expression that’s long been in serious need of an overhaul. And, if Steve Dawson was aware of the challenges he faced in mounting his tribute to the Mississippi Sheiks CD and the two concerts that celebrated its release, it was hard to tell through the sheer joy unleashed in the music he and a dozen or so of the greatest living artists in the genre shared with a rapturous crowd over a March weekend in Vancouver.
‘Things About Comin’ My Way’ – the album that paid tribute to the gritty music created by the Chatmon family during the nineteen thirties and forties – was recorded during three big sessions featuring guest vocalists with a house band to establish a consistent sound. For the concerts Dawson – as the musical director – tried to recreate what worked so well with the CD while at the same time, shaking up the format a little to allow for elements of spontaneity and surprise. To this end, Dawson corralled the talents of Wayne Horvitz on keyboards, Matt Chamberlain on drums and Keith Lowe on bass – the same session players who played on the album – to provide the bedrock sound for the concerts. Daniel Lapp – who may just be the finest fiddler and trumpet player in Canada – was also recruited to flush out the sound of the house band. With Lapp in the group, the music took on extra dimensions that allowed the musicians to travel all over the sonic map from roadhouse blues to Cajun fiddling to sojourns deep into experimental jazz territory. Add to it Dawson’s expansive guitar playing and – even without the considerable roster of guests – a beautiful and challenging evening of music was virtually guaranteed.
I was fortunate enough to hear the second show of the series, and it didn’t take long to realize that some serious chemistry was established between the musicians during the first concert. So, by the time Dawson and company took the stage at eight o’clock last Sunday night, all of the barriers had come down, and intuition was given free rein. And while the blues – like reggae – isn’t the hardest music in the world to play from a technical standpoint, feeling is essential and something that can’t be learned from a book or a lesson. Thankfully, feeling was at a premium throughout the more than three hours of music the sold out audience was treated to – as the blues was revitalized and given new life right before their eyes and ears.
Of course, any attempt to adequately describe an event like the Mississippi Sheiks concert in a linear fashion is probably doomed from the outset. Good music – like love or the reward of a beautiful mountain view after a day spent climbing to reach it – is beggared by the use of words, and any description comes off as far less than the event itself. It really was a case of ‘you had to be there’ as the magic of the evening was the result of the totality of the experience rather than the excellence of any of the individual performances.
Tribute shows featuring multiple artists are challenging to stage for a number of obvious reasons, but Dawson and company through a miracle of pacing, and an organic shifting of musicians on and off stage managed to pull off a show that found the right balance between structure and spontaneity, form and formlessness.
The evening began with Dawson and his house band sitting down to play an open ended instrumental version of ‘Sitting on top of the World’, arguably the best-known song in the Sheiks’ canon. As the musicians roamed through the melody, a silhouetted Jim Byrnes appeared at a pulpit to the right of the stage and began to read reminiscences from Sam Chatmon, one of the founding members of the Sheiks. This was a brilliant move on Dawson’s part that established a rootsy down home atmosphere and set the context for the music to come.
The performers who sang at the tribute roughly fell into three categories: the second generation blues and country players who had been playing the music since the sixties, middle aged musicians like Dave Alvin and Colin James who were influenced both by the originators and the second generation blues artists, and performers like Robin Holcomb whose interpretation of the music is so unique as to defy categorization. Each group of musicians had their fans in the audience, and miraculously these disparate artists came together to present a varied, yet flowing musical evening.
Each performance succeeded in capturing what it set out to express. Seamless contributions from John Hammond, Jim Byrnes, Geoff Muldaur, and Bob Brozman took listeners back to the early days of the blues revival, and it was an effective reminder to hear these aging musicians communicate all of the passion and fire that brought them to the blues in the first place. While these artists have often been slighted for their lack of relevance and ingenuity by members of the popular music press, it’s important to remember that when these young men first embraced the blues, they were heading down an exciting and dangerous musical path. The fact that their style is now considered middle of the road is a testament to their success, and it was wonderful to hear each of these players giving their all to vindicate their music and talent. There was not a single rote or tossed off performance all evening, and it was fabulous to see and hear artists like Hammond and Byrnes – who each have nearly fifty years of experience in the biz and who don’t have to break a sweat to give a note perfect rendition of a song – grin from ear to ear and encourage each other to dig deep and give the performances of a lifetime. Blues has often been described as a stepping stone or starting off point to other more ‘serious’ or ‘worthwhile’ pursuits, but the performances and performers at Capilano University should have assured any doubters that the decision to dedicate one’s life to exploring the blues is a worthy pursuit in itself. To see these elders beaming from the stage, basking in musical nirvanas all their own, is to understand that their creative lives have been well spent and to acknowledge the collective debt owed to each of them.
For many of the performers, having a good time was the order of the day. Canadian songstress Oh Susannah started the evening out right by belting out a scorching version of ‘Things about comin’ my way’ that set the ante very high and inspired all who followed her. Colin James beamed from the stage as he ripped into a Sun Records style impression of ‘It ain’t no lie’ that set the stage for Dave Alvin’s glorious take on ‘Please Baby.’ Worlds away from the seductive vamp that Madeleine Peyroux treated the same song to on the tribute album, Alvin’s loose limbed take on the song broke the ice on stage as Alvin Youngblood Hart and Daniel Lapp each delivered inspired solos that unhinged the band to sail freely through the remainder of the concert.
Steve Dawson got down to business by singing and playing ‘Lonely one in this town’ in a much snakier, more lubricated version than was recorded for the album. Dawson’s somewhat restrained vocals sounded looser and more assured than ever before, belying the obvious hard work and responsibility for the evening that fell to him. It was a testament to his ability as a producer that he managed to keep the whole programme flowing organically as musicians swapped instruments and positions on stage with nary a break between songs. Throughout the evening, Dawson was so omnipresent that he became all but invisible as he effortlessly spun out tasty guitar solos and directed the band from the far right of the stage. The whole evening benefited from this ego free, egalitarian approach, but on the rare occasions that he stepped out to wail – as he did on an incendiary version of ‘Gulf Coast Bay’ – you could practically see the sparks shooting off of his guitar.
While some members of the audience failed to appreciate Robin Holcomb’s contributions to the concert, to my ears, her versions of ‘Still Traveling On’ and ‘Blood in my eyes’ were among the evening’s richest rewards. Playing with ‘The Vancouver Sheiks’ string section lead by Daniel Lapp, Holcomb lifted each song out of the roadhouse and into the academy with some of the most challenging arrangements ever heard at a traditional music concert. Yet, her music was anything but cold and aloof as close listening revealed a huge undercurrent of soul that was accentuated by Dawson’s most surprising guitar work of the whole concert. His leads on ‘Blood in my Eyes’ soared with a complexity and outside musical sense that recalled Jerry Garcia at his most unexpected and adventurous. Almost three hours into the show, it was a solo that I never wanted to end.
In a concert full of big names, if one was forced to choose a standout performer at the tribute, it would have to be Van Dyke Parks. Playing in Canada for the first time, this veteran producer and keyboard player appeared to be having the time of his life – despite breathlessly confessing ‘I’m too old for this’ – as he continued to appear on stage supporting other artists by laying down weird chords on his accordion or joyously splintering the melody on piano. Every note he played offered revelations as he continued to make up for whatever he lacked in vocal ability with a soulfulness that could not be denied. Each time he appeared–whether to sing and play a dizzying version of ‘Jazz Fiddler’ during which he and Lapp chased each other’s melodies all over the stage, or to support The Sojourners as they strutted their way through ‘Sweet Maggie’ (Corinna, Corinna) the energy and joy reached new heights.
In the end, after more than three hours of music, the exhausted audience finally gave in. One feels that the musicians were just hitting their stride and that they could have kept on going all night – as they apparently did at the after concert party- but eventually all good things come to an end, and after a celebratory romp through ‘Who’s been here?’ lead by Dave Alvin, and an inevitable group sing along of ‘Sitting on top of the world’ to bookend the evening, the stage darkened and both audience and performers left the theatre, exhausted, yet recharged and blessed with a rekindled faith in the transformative power of music.