Blues homecoming

Chris Cain returns to scorch the Big Room stage

Chris Cain (right) tears it up at the Big Room with keyboardist Greg Rahn and bassist Steve Evans.

Chris Cain (right) tears it up at the Big Room with keyboardist Greg Rahn and bassist Steve Evans.

Photo by Ken Pordes

Chris Cain Band, Monday, Nov. 21, Sierra Nevada Big Room.

The Chris Cain Band was greeted by a packed house at the Sierra Nevada Big Room last Monday (Nov. 21) that happily reveled in the affable guitarist/band leader’s presence. He opened the performance by announcing that, “We’re gonna play some blues!” and for the next 90 minutes that’s exactly what they did. The San Jose musician had only recently returned from a 20-day trip to Australia and New Zealand, where, backed by a local combo, he played a dozen dates to great acclaim. Once Stateside, he resumed his usual Tuesday night gig at San Francisco’s Biscuits and Blues club, which finds him joined by a choice collection of blues people.

Cain and his band—Greg Rahn, keyboards; Steve Evans, bass; and Mick Mestek, drums—opened with “Whole Lotta Lovin’,” an uptempo number celebrating that fact. Rocking back and forth and shaking his head up and down, he dug notes from his Gibson ES-355 guitar—the same model played by B.B. King, his first influence. That his playing owes as much to B.B. King as Albert King became apparent as the night progressed. Cain’s an inventive songwriter, too, and “Steppin’ on a High Wire” (“Fallin’ in love without a net”), his take on the love-gone-wrong theme, was a good example of his wordcraft. Rahn’s jazzy keyboard solo (wow!) delighted Cain, too, and further enhanced the mood of loss, while the song’s relaxed tempo encouraged the floor full of dancers to bob in place, which continued right up to the last note of the night.

Cain was such a regular musical guest at the brewery’s pub back in the 1990s, he was practically the house band. I don’t remember seeing many in last Monday’s audience who were digging him back then, but I did run into Steve Rubenstein, the local harp-playing leader of Rube and the Rhythm Rockers and a regular at gigs like this, who, when asked what kept him coming back to Cain’s shows, replied: “He’s a great entertainer whose guitar work is incredible and he always gives his guys room to stretch out.” This was borne out by a number I’d never heard from Cain before. It began with a Latin rhythm, then morphed into a New Orleans classic—Professor Longhair’s “Go to the Mardi Gras”—with Rahn really working out on the piano and Meztek providing a satisfying N.O. backbeat. The dancers really got to shake their booties on this one!

After referring to B.B. King (“I wouldn’t be here if not for him”), Cain moved stage left and directed his attention to his lady friend in the audience while playing a lengthy “Sweet Sixteen,” King’s chart-busting love song. Cain’s a master of dynamics, which he showed several times –as he did here in another powerful performance—by taking the volume way, way down and then slowly building it back up. We were all transfixed. He soon shook us all into action with a rousing version of “Barefootin’” that, again, engendered major activity on the dance floor. Cain understands just how vital it is to energize an audience, getting its feedback by dancing to his music, and the Monday night crowd definitely obliged.

In addition to his prowess on guitar, Cain’s smooth, warm vocals are a perfect fit for his material, most of it original, such as “Drinking Straight Tequila”—another high-energy number—which closed the show. However, the band was prevailed upon for an encore and he dedicated “I’m Leaving You” to Albert King in another magnificent demonstration of his sense of dynamics.

Notice: Good news for Big Room regulars—tickets to the brewery’s shows can now be purchased at the gift shop.