Have a seat
“The blues is a chair,” John Lennon was once quoted as saying. The beauty of the blues is that it’s also a scaffold, providing just enough form for individual players to hang their own embellishments. Understanding that scaffold called the blues, a form of music that’s part of the DNA in most American music that matters, is something that comes as easy as breathing to many musicians. Its fundamentals are simple enough to grasp for most aspiring players, but its nuances take a lifetime to develop. And when those nuances do begin to emerge, it’s a marvel to behold.
The above metaphorical pipe scrapings are a long-winded way of saying that, after a couple of days trapped in bed with a flu bug and a book of sudoku puzzles, I went looking for the blues on a Sunday night. I found them at the PowerHouse Pub in downtown Folsom.
Sunday is jam night at the PowerHouse, and jam sessions are a good place to check out local talent. The level of musicianship is rock-solid, what with Steve Mears’ band Probable Cause, in various permutations, joining most of the visiting players onstage. Of course, having a guitarist as capable as Tim Barnes, of Stoneground and Mick Martin fame, playing backup through much of the evening will elevate nearly anybody’s game. And it’s not like anyone would need to struggle to learn these tunes while they play; most of the blues and soul canon offered here these guys could rattle off in their sleep.
After a warm-up set by Mears’ band, Mears and co-host Don Gates began calling various musicians to the stage. First was the Whitewater Blues Band, a combo from Marysville that dug right into the canon: Willie Dixon’s “Hootchie Cootchie Man” and “Mellow Down Easy,” Willie Mabon’s “I Don’t Know” and Delbert McClinton’s “Standing on Shaky Ground.”
After a few permutations of equally solid players performed similar material, a guy stepped onstage wearing what looked like a black sharkskin suit, a fedora and wraparound shades. He plugged in a black Ibanez and proceeded to strangle out some warped atonal noise, kinda like Stevie Ray Vaughan colliding with the Shaggs. On the next number, he switched to harp, blowing so loudly into the mic that it sounded like a bucket of cold water feels when it’s thrown in your face. He switched back to guitar and mumbled-sang some mush-mouf blues, which compelled the other guitarist onstage to violently unplug, jump off the stage and theatrically point his guitar’s headstock at the offending blues master before exiting. It was bad but hugely entertaining.
And that set up the next acts nicely: First, Barnes and guitarist Rick von Geldern backed Marshal Wilkerson, as close to a vintage soul god as you’ll find in Sacramento. Especially cool was their wicked workout on Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition.” (And Wilkerson holds court every Friday night at Verona Joe’s Cantina Grill, up the Sacramento River just across the Sutter County line.) Then, Barnes was joined by guitarist Jeff Watson—not the Night Ranger Jeff Watson—for a sublime mini-guitar summit with plenty of chrome-plated leads traded back and forth, which sated my Duane Allman jones for at least a week.
All in all, a (mostly) fitting re-upholstery of a very familiar chair.