Audiophiles Do Go to Heaven
"Once upon a time….."
(actually 1998) in a far-away land (actually Kansas) a strange thing happened. No, not an odd-shaped field-crop formation, but a "trip to see the Wizard of Oz" from the perspective of a music fan / audiophile.
First, a little background. When Chad Kassem first started selling "audio-phile" recordings and equipment to "audio-phanatics," he probably never dreamed of the empire he would build with his company, Acoustic Sounds becoming the largest of its kind. Along the way, he purchased a vacant local Church building, with beautiful wood interior and wonderful acoustics. He restored it to pristine condition, and added a state-of-the-art recording studio at its rear to capture its gorgeous sound. I knew little of any other details, I was just a customer.
I happened to buy one of the recordings that had been produced by Chad's record label, Analogue Productions Originals. It was "Blue Bird" by Jimmy Rogers. I had recently upgraded one of my audio components (what a surprise) and got such a thrill hearing this aging but still gifted bluesman, that I mentioned to Chad on the phone how much I appreciated the quality of his work. I'd never heard Jimmy sound this good. I could hear details in his voice and breath that conveyed the long road he'd traveled. What a great opportunity for me (and for him) to have his songs preserved so beautifully. Chad thanked me for my compliment, was glad I appreciated his efforts, but sadly informed me that in the interim, Jimmy Rogers had passed away. He then went on to tell me that he was determined to find other similar blues musicians who were present at its "birth," some who had played with the grand-daddy's of the blues: Robert Johnson, Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters, …..
And so he did. He even hired Jimmy Rogers' son, Jimmy D. Lane (himself a powerhouse blues artist) to search for those old timers that he had grown up with, as contemporaries of his Dad. Chad's aim was to assemble a group of them, if they were up to the task, and record them in his church/studio "for posterity." What a great idea, and humanitarian good deed! I said, "boy, would I love to be a fly on the wall for that recording session." He said, "you mean you'd fly out from New York to Kansas just for this?" You bet. Without hardly knowing me, Chad arranged to have his secretary meet me at the airport, and take me to the hotel where Chad was housing a whole group of blues performers for the weekend. Many were in their 80's and 90's and you could actually see their history in their faces. Some weathered, some weary, but all had a spirit that belied their age.
I was even invited to join the staff and performers for the entire weekend, sharing the endless meals that Chad had people cooking all day. All Friday afternoon I moved my seat around the church, looking for the "sweet spot" during the rehearsals and sound checks, so I'd be perfectly positioned for the evening's recording session. A sign was posted to invite the locals to the musical event, in hopes that the performance would gain some energy from the audience, and improve the "show." It sure did. Some of these blues masters "hobbled" onto the stage, but when they started playing they were back to being 20-somethings. Each played a set of their best tunes, basked in the crowd's appreciation, and willingly played several encores with endless energy.
I'll mention here that once I experienced this unique, exhilarating experience, I had no choice but to return each year for yet another similar weekend, and have done so for 11 of the past 12 years (the exception being after 9-11 in 2001). Why? Read on…
After hanging with the "in crowd" all day Friday, and hearing all the stories these legends told, I witnessed the historic performances of 6 blues greats (recorded on hi rez audio and professional studio quality video) from 6pm till midnight. The church was truly lifted off its foundations, figuratively reflecting the image of blues guitarists incorporated into its new stained glass windows, and literally from the supercharged array of heartfelt vocals, dynamic guitars, horns, organs, blues harps, and drums. All blues styles: Folk, Delta, Texas, Chicago, Electric, Zydeco, Gospel, and others too hard to categorize.
Whew! I returned to the hotel. Little did I expect that soon would erupt an all night jam session, with combinations of the artists, band members, volunteers, whatever, till 4am. Grabbed a nap, then I was invited to visit the extraordinary building that houses Acoustic Sounds' listening rooms and inventory warehouse. Talk about a kid in a toy store. Not only did I run amuck through aisles of seemingly endless CDs and LPs, but I sampled the sounds from the wide range of equipment in the display/listening rooms. Reminded me of the "good old days" when plentiful audio salons welcomed the sharing of the joys of our "hobby."
"Oh No, Toto, we're not in New York any more….."
Every year, Chad and his family (including his "extended family" - his staff who work endlessly planning and hosting this event) welcome me as one of their own. I am forever in their debt. I've met and gotten to know similar guests from as far as Florida, Canada, and even Denmark, and made new friends including two other audio nut/blues fans from California.
This year, most of the performers were from past Bluesmasters sessions, which was a great chance to re-visit with a vanishing group of irreplaceable gems.
Performers Fri. 10/16/09
1-Leroy Jodie Pierson: quiet, country-style back porch blues, accompanied by engaging stories about his history in the world of the blues; gorgeous National Steel guitar sound
2-Honeyboy Edwards (w/Marquise Knox): on one stage at one time, the oldest and youngest examples of the blues tradition; a witnessing of the passing of the torch; Honeyboy is the last of those who've actually played with Robert Johnson (see BHS promo notes); his voice parched and weathered, some lyrics are unintelligible, but he plays every note from some internal automatic memory, those now-familiar riffs that were once so innovative. This is what inspired the original Bluesmasters sessions, and is what it's all about.
3-Major Handy- Cajun, zydeco; plays every instrument available, every style, and with endless energy
4-Lazy Lester (w/Marquise Knox on guitar); consummate blues guitar and harp; always humorous, easygoing, laid back; anxious to give credit and spotlight to Marquise Knox, who all the old veterans see as their heir; to quote Lester: "He ain't yet twenty, but he's playin' plenty."
5-Sherman Robertson (Major Handy on keyboards; Lazy Lester on harp); what a showman; mixes zydeco/R&B/Soul/Rock with a "smooooth" personality; great version of "Ain't no sunshine when she's gone"
6-Marcia Ball; one of the more well-known performers; polished, tight band, rousing, blistering keyboards; great finale
That night, I went back to the hotel around 1am, looking forward to the 1:30am jam that I've attended before. Having been up since 4am, and following a week of business travel and little sleep, I decided to just take a 10-15 minute rest before the jam….. Oops, I awoke many hours later. I missed the jam. Not to worry, there's always tomorrow night….
Performers Saturday, October 17th
1-Honeyboy Edwards (w/Marquise Knox on guitar, Michael Franks on harp) see Friday notes
2-Dan Dyer: modern, high voice style, reminded me of Gnarls Barkley, a departure from all the other blues performers; I'm not sure if he redefines the scope of the blues category, or if he instead belongs to another genre; high energy, uses synth and cello; interesting exploration, but not my cup of blues 3-Marquise Knox (with Major Handy on keyboards, and Hammond organ with that luscious sounding Lesley tone cabinet): he is my prediction for the future of Old Time Blues; he channels the spirits of those past masters, whom he has played with and learned from, embodying the voices and playing abilities of B.B., Robert Johnson, Willie Dixon, etc. He has become a memorable highlight of my years of attending Bluesmasters.
4-Howard Tate: a discovery for me; interesting life story; a sound and style reminiscent of Al Green; sang B.B.'s "Sweet Sixteen," and his hit "Get It While You Can"; I will definitely buy the 45rpm vinyl that I heard him record, as soon as it's issued.
"But wait, there's more…."
This trip, I was also invited to attend two unique "direct-to-disc" recording sessions; one with Howard Tate, the other with Diunna Greenleaf. This experience is a whole other story in itself. I thought I died and went to Audiophile/Blues Heaven.
5-Diunna Greenleaf: What I can I say to convey how she absolutely knocked me out; and this even after I've seen her perform before; she's a big woman who gets the audience into the palm of her hands with her sassy, softly sexy antics (even in a Church) and toys with the crowd, and her unbelievable guitarist, John Richardson, another "discovery" that I predict will (or should) become world famous; blistering artful guitar solos, playful fun when she searches the audience "Looking for her next John Lee Hooker" to love, or chastising the men in her life for Double Dealing; joined by Major Handy on keyboards, then Sherman Robertson for a duet; all throughout, a powerhouse vocal that kept the crowd gasping and smiling and wanting more; If I were writing a blues review headline it would be "Exhilarating guitar wizardry, Emotional power vocals, and Involving showmanship."
6-Magic Slim: just good old fashioned, steady rolling old time blues; a good if aging performance, but would not have been my choice for the finale (Diunna was made for that role)
There's No Place Like It
I travel all the way from NY to KS every year for this timeless music, for this unique event. But because I've come to know these performers, and the friends I've made during past visits, and am welcomed so warmly by my hosts, my visits have a real feeling of home.