Cruisin’ for a bluesin’
What do you get when you cross the blues with brews? A great time, of course
Gold Country Casino’s pairing of two items dear to my heart featured three bands, seven craft beers—all of them from Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.—plus the usual assortment of industrial swill. Dinner was also on offer with a lot of chicken, beef ribs, beans and corn being consumed by patrons who had reserved seats at the dozens of tables that lined the perimeter of the dance floor.
At $8, which included a slice of chocolate cake, it was quite a bargain. So was the music. Three bands—Oakland’s Lady Bianca; Humboldt County’s Earl Thomas; and the Bay Area’s Jackie Payne/Steve Edmonson Band—for $12.
As a first-time visitor to the cavernous, tent-like room, I was pleasantly surprised to see that it was detached from the casino itself, which meant there wasn’t a constant clatter of slot machines and cigarette smoke drifting into the space. Comfy seats, too. I also appreciated the fact that, after a few raffle prizes had been handed out, the music started promptly at 8 p.m. when Lady Bianca’s “band"—guitarist Steve Gannon and drummer Steve Eldridge—launched into a brief instrumental before she joined them at her piano.
A hefty woman with a voice to match, Lady Bianca has been a fixture on the Bay Area music scene since the ‘70s, when she essayed the role of Billie Holiday in Jon Hendrix’s musical Evolution of the Blues. Highlights of her 45-minute, eight-song set were the uptempo “When We Go Dancin’ “ that showed her terrific boogie-woogie chops and gave the floorful of dancers something to work up a sweat on; the country-flavored “Oprah Winfrey Show” (she wants to be on it) and, after she took off her shoes, a lengthy, relaxed story ("Easy Lovin’ an Ugly Man") that described her affection for a man too “ugly to let out of the house.”
Earl Thomas was up next and put on the best show of the night. A natural entertainer with killer pipes, the dapper vocalist opened with the Delta-style classic “Rollin’ and Tumblin’ “ (with stunning slide guitar by James DePrato) and moved easily from soul to blues during his eight-song, 45-minute set (his encore added another nine minutes).
During a stirring rendition of “I’d Rather Go Blind” (excellent obbligatos courtesy of pianist Mike Emerson) he said, “I don’t think they hear me, fellas,” stepped away from the mic and continued to sing while the audience let out a big roar of approval. He then thanked us and also Etta James, who put this song on the map 40 years ago.
After a rousing “Hey, Bo Diddley” (more slide guitar!) the band got another big hand. “Elijah’s Rock” illustrated the connection between gospel and blues ("just substitute the word ‘baby’ for ‘Jesus’ “) and kept the dancers busy. Thomas had some smooth moves, too, and glided easily about the stage while his band (Mike Sugar on acoustic bass and T. Moran on a stripped-down drum kit) kept the groove going.
After a quick sound check and a couple of instrumentals, it was—as guitarist Steve Edmonson announced—"star time” and Jackie Payne, clad in a lavender double-breasted suit, strolled mic side. Payne was backed by the Sweet Meat Horn Section (Carl Green, sax and Julius Melendez, trumpet) who did a fine job of riffing in all the right places.
A seasoned vet whose first single came out 43 years ago, Payne’s more soul than blues as evinced by his versions of the O.V. Wright hit “A Nickel and a Nail” and the Bobby “Blue” Bland-influenced—complete with Bland’s “gargle"—"(If Loving You Is Wrong) I Don’t Want to be Right.”
Bassist Bill Singletary and drummer Nick Otis (son of Johnny), Edmonson and Payne finished up after a lengthy James Brown medley, with a rousing version of “Love and Happiness” that continued even after the house lights came up (3 1/2 hours after it had all begun) and the cleanup crew went into action. Whatta night!