Taking the stage at the Old Rock House clad in camouflage pants and a black and white plaid shirt, Grammy award-winning blues master Alvin Youngblood Hart quickly tuned his resonator guitar and poured out his soul. Playing in the fingerpicking style of Charley Patton and Son House, Hart translates his life experiences into music and becomes the song rather than playing it.
Hart played a 45 minute set of his own tunes and a few Charley Patton covers, switching between his resonator guitar, a 12-string acoustic, and what looked like a Danelectro '56 Pro between songs. His slide runs over the strings with the ease and precision that only comes with time and love. I don't know if he was using any pedals to color his tone, but the low end was thick and greasy while the high end was razor sharp, which is just about as good as you can get for playing electric blues.
The first time I realized exactly what people meant by 'feeling the blues' was when I saw John Hammond, Jr. open for David Lindley a few years back. Hart's set brought back that same understanding, that it is something to be felt, not just heard. I was taken aback enough that when I approached him after the show, all I could say was "Thank you" over and over again. I'm sure he thinks I'm a bit soft in the head, but it was his playing that put me in that condition.
Jimbo Mathus was the next on the bill accompanied by his band the Tri-State Coalition. Probably best known as the guitarist for the Squirrel Nut Zippers, Mathus left his swing style behind for the blues in the late '90s and hasn't looked back since. His stage persona reminded me of a mix between Chris Barron of the Spin Doctors and St. Louis' favorite murder balladeer, Fred Friction.
Mathus's set consisted of 45 minutes of tracks from his new album "White Buffalo" and a few older cuts, along with a few Charley Patton tunes. The Tri-County Coalition is a quartet consisting of Matt Pierce on the Telecaster, Terrence Bishop playing bass, Eric Carlton on keyboards and accordion and Ryan Rogers on the drums.
Musically, the band was spot on the entire night. I especially noticed that Terrance Bishop was playing sparse bass lines while the rest of the band was in full swing, which complimented the songs worlds more than if he'd been playing a hundred notes a minute. Matt Pierce was no slouch either. I still don't know how he was making some of those pedal steel licks come out of his Telecaster without stomping on a mess of pedals.
Mathus himself is no slouch on the guitar, playing with the same fingerstyle technique as Hart and Peyton. His songs were full of tongue-in-cheek humor and a hint of sadness, which was often overshadowed by the mid-tempo pace the band was keeping. The harder rocking "White Buffalo" was a notable change in pace, one that I would have liked to have seen in some of the other songs. While they sound great at a jogging pace, there was some serious power on stage when they cranked it up a notch.
The Reverend Peyton's Big Damn Band was the next up, bounding on stage as the crowd roared with excitement. The Rev grabbed his resonator guitar and flashed his ear to ear grin to the crowd before ripping into the first song of the evening.
Reverend Peyton is one of those guitar players who is so masterful at his craft that you really have no concept of how difficult the style in which he plays really is. After a few songs, he stopped to explain that he plays country blues or rural blues, which is a dying art "because it's hard to do." He explained further, stating that in country blues the thumb of the picking hand plays the bass while the fingers play the lead and melody parts. To give an example that everyone would understand, he then proceeded to play both the bass and lead horn parts of Henry Mancini's theme to the T.V. show "Peter Gunn" at the same time. Peyton is known for "showing off" as he calls it, and whether it is the display tonight or his playing "Dixie" and "Yankee Doodle" at the same time, it is something that needs to be seen to be believed.
The Big Damn Band consists of Peyton's wife Breezy on the washboard and distant cousin Aaron "Cuz" Persinger on the drums and 5-gallon plastic bucket. Breezy struts around the stage as she plays, grimacing at the crowd and flashing the sweetest smile this side of the Mississippi. Cuz pounds his drums so hard that he usually has to re-align and secure his kit between songs. Peyton was a master craftsman whether he was playing his resonator guitar, Gibson flat-top, three-string cigar box guitar or his Eastwood Airline Map electric.
The band played a large part of their new album "Between the Ditches" along with a handful of fan favorites, such as "Mama's Fried Potatoes" which he demanded the crowd sing along with, and arguably his biggest hit to date "Clap Your Hands" in which he asked the crowd to do him a small favor and lose their shit. The crowd complied with both requests.
All of the songs were played faster than the album tracks, some of them seemed to be moving along at double the speed. This didn't result in a sloppy set, it just made them sound as if they had mashed their country blues with some hardcore punk to make a peanut butter cup of musical awesomeness.
Towards the end of their set, Breezy and Cuz left the stage and the Reverend played a few Charley Patton tunes solo. (You should remember this part, it will be important later.) Mathus and Hart joined the Reverend to play some more Charley Patton tunes on the spot, with Mathus on guitar and Hart on mandolin and vocals. The rest of the Big Damn Band joined in the next song, and the remainder of the Tri-County Coalition hit the stage to finish off the night with two more Patton tunes and an encore of Peyton's "Two Bottles of Wine."
As the bands were getting situated, Peyton talked to the crowd about why he picked the artists for the tour. Aside from their mutual love of Charley Patton, Hart was an idol of Peyton's during his high school years and Mathus' music was introduced to him by Breezy on their first date.
Those artists were part of what made him choose to play music and the chemistry between them on stage was clearly visible, especially during the last few songs before the encore, which were loud, raucous, and totally unrehearsed. Again, I was completely blown away by Hart and Pierce, both taking solos that made them sound as if they had an army of Telecaster-wielding guitar slingers hidden under the stage.
The highlight of the evening for me was not on the stage, however. When I was given the assignment to cover this show, I told Roy Kasten, KDHX DJ and Web Editor, that I would get the Big Damn Band to sign my washboard or get arrested in the process. I managed to snag Breezy and Cuz as they were sneaking to the back of the house during Rev's solo set and got their signatures then. I got the autograph of the man himself after the show ended.
When I grab my board and get ready to play, I will remember the passion and fierceness that was displayed on stage and use it to fuel my own musical endeavors. Hopefully I will be able to channel some of that into someone hearing me and continue the cycle.