(a review, actually)
In thinking about why I like Libby Rae Watson and Bill Steber as performing artists, trying to find the real reason to give some context, a John Lee Hooker line in “Boogie Chillen'” comes to mind.
“One night I was layin’ down
I heard mama and papa talkin’
I heard papa tell mama let that boy boogie-woogie
It’s in him and it got to come out“
It’s not that their music is boogie, sometimes it is, often it isn’t; it’s more about where it comes from. Good music, real music, make that art in general comes from the heart, not from the head.
Lots of music comes from the head though; and it can be pleasantly entertaining. But not always. Clarksdale certainly has some of both. As the birthplace of the blues, and rock n’ roll, with all that legacy, it makes sense that many are attracted, find religion from our culture here, and then decide they want to play it.
Finding something is different that something that was already there. It’s almost like wanting is a separate gulf away from a yearning ache in your soul. So, it’s a fine line, that purity of place and art, if there ever is such a thing. Defining it, that’s an age old quest, to give rule to something that is felt, rather than articulated. Something that is natural, rather than contrived, has more meaning, it seems, for one reason or another.
Today’s word for this is authenticity, and the search for it is a national consumer trend. It has been for a while. And it is most important. But is authenticity the boogie that John Lee was talking about? I certainly hope so, but whatever it is, whatever one calls it, or feels it, Libby Rae Watson and Bill Steber have it. And it has come out.
The preparation for the first set that Libby and Bill played Friday evening in the Juke Joint Chapel at the Shack Up Inn came off of a 12-song set list. Often they play together, and performance prep is little more than what should we play next. Well, the audience of about 50, the Chapel was full, and…, well, Libby and Bill know how to adapt to an audience, and the crowd’s clapping, hoots, hollers, dancin’, increasing enthusiasm and singing responses when they should– it was a hoedown community– changed all that prep into a 20-song set that lasted a little more than 2 hours.
They play roots American music. A revival of blues, country, Appalachia, the church, tinges of rock and rockabilly, it’s all there. Copious notes were taken throughout the set, about 10 pages of quickly scribbled thoughts and observations. Starting with a question I asked myself in the middle of it, in summary here’s what went down:
• How can something so roots authentic seem so sophisticated and current at the same time? Good music/art seems to find a foot in every quarter.
• If they weren’t such nice people, would it be this real/good/attractive? (That answer, of course not!)
• With their gifted abilities, they are both serious students of the music and culture. Bill even said it when introducing a song with reference to Furry Lewis (who at one time opened for The Rolling Stones).
• The songs were a mix of a few originals (Libby Rae’s always crowd pleasing and sing-a-long “Big Joe”) and interpretations of Louis Jordan, Furry Lewis, The Memphis Jug Band and Jimmy Rogers, Little Brother Montgomery, Robert Wilkins, Hattie Hart, Leroy Carr, Mississippi John Hurt, Joe Calicott and Sam Chatmon. The closing number, the rousing African American spiritual sing-a-long, “I Woke Up this Morning with My Mind Stayed on Jesus” is still stuck in my head.
• With a small western bandana tied loosely around her neck, and a gentle rhythmic bounce, the thing about Libby Rae is joy. Through eyes and smiles she exudes it. It begs the question if you don’t love what’ya doin’, how can someone else? Two great mentors helped her early, Sam Chatmon of The Mississippi Sheiks, and Big Joe Williams himself. She’s good when she plays solo, it’s great when she plays with Bill, and it’s really great when she plays with The Jericho Road Show, with Wes Lee and Ramblin’ Steve Gardner added (and that is another tale indeed).
Throughout this performance Libby often sang lead, backup, she played both acoustic and resonator guitars, mostly rhythm with single-note accents, and some lead. She played the spoons, accented beats with her feet, and on one song it was just a wee sorta thing that sounded like a tambourine (She didn’t play a bow-saw this time, but Bill did.)
• Bill? Think revival first. A nice hat, a cool casual shirt, home grown tent minstrel mixed with country blues is never far from him. And he attractively enjoys tha’hell’outta it too. He sang lead, back-up, played acoustic and resonator guitars, lots of slide, a little lead, and mandolin, a small 4-string banjo, a KAZOO, harmonica, and bass lines on a JUG. If he’d’a wheeled in a circus calliope one suspects he would’a played that, but he did play a bow-saw (like adding needed soul into The Shining).
What made all this better though, even more artistically honest and truthful was one could not tell who was having a better time. The Audience? Libby? Bill? Their Drummer? The answer, and it is how it should be, was all of them!
• About that drummer. In other iterations of Libby Rae and Bill, I had not heard Sammy Forex before. He’s been a good friend and collaborator with Bill for years, and Sammy’s playing adds a really nice touch to what Libby Rae and Bill do. Sammy trap kit? Blink and you’ll miss it: a small snare, even smaller cymbal (just one of them), a wood block and a cow bell. That’s it! I kept looking for a hi-hat, had to look twice to be sure he wasn’t hiding a kick drum, but all the beat, and all the touch was just right there. He also played washboard, with an even smaller cymbal and a little bell on it too.
Some of the more crowd arousing beats were marching, a little New Orleans, Africa tribal too, even when Sammy was playing with brushes instead of sticks. One of my notes on the Mississippi John Hurt song “Pallet on Your Floor” reads “soft slow swirling brush on snare, tasty accent on woodblock and cow bell.”
• Deak Harp set in for two songs, and his harmonica added much to both. It must’a been all those years on the road with James Cotton where Deak got it, but now it’s just got to come out of him too.
In conclusion, the audience was fun and informed. Ethnomusicologist, former Living Blues Magazine publisher, blues trail marker writer and researcher, and university teacher Scott Barretta was there, and like the Issaqueena audience of yesteryear, when the blues really took hold, there is a Clarksdale core that really knows its stuff; it always has, and if one can entertain here, one can anywhere. That’s how it all began.
Here’s a page of the notes taken on each song of the set. This was while they were playing “How Long Blues” from Leroy Carr .