When I arrived at NASA, two men were already onstage. At first I didn’t think any music was being played, but as I apologised my way through a crowd full of dirty jeans and bomber jackets I realised there was an ethereal wail permeating the room, and it was coming from the slide guitar resting above the lap of a very long-haired gentleman onstage. His name was Gummi and I recognised him from a cat show I went to about two years ago.
The other musician was less familiar to me, but the inquisitive, enigmatic melodies issuing from his double bass were so perfectly complementary to the high-pitched soar of the slide guitar that they could both have been played by the same person. Impressed as I was by the anonymous duo, the crowd seemed bored and indifferent at best. When they did clap, it sounded like the obligatory applause at a grade school talent contest.
The blues crowd, it seemed, had not come prepared for this: decent-looking men dressed in tasteful suits violating their classic instruments with that despicable “experimental music” (admittedly, I myself use this word with considerable caution– I usually only employ it as a euphemism for shitty). Nonetheless, Gummi and his associate – Toggi, according to an informed source – played excellent music that was more atmosphere than composition, and provided a lofty contrast to the gritty distortion that followed.
Unappreciative as the crowd was for the first act, they seemed to come around to Mike Pollock’s collection of blues, honky-tonk and rock covers. Accompanied by Danni Pollock and an enthusiastic harmonica player, they enjoyed themselves immensely, and that definitely affected the crowd; suddenly NASA didn’t seem like the tanning lotion-fueled money-laundering front we all know and love, but a crummy local dive where any drunken idiot could stumble onstage and bleat out a couple of tunes before collapsing into a puddle of his own vomit.
But you could tell this was not the act the crowd was waiting for. The air was practically rank with the guilty impatience of anticipation, and although the Pollocks were both likeable and liked, they never surpassed the mediocre expectations that are generally afforded to warm-up acts. The stage light reflecting off of Danni’s steel guitar and onto the high ceiling, flickering and shimmering silently as Danni’s hands darted to and fro seemed to perfectly represent the emotional state of the crowd.
When Honeyboy finally sauntered onstage accompanied by a man with a hat and roars of applause from the audience, his relaxed dignity astounded me. He managed to look exactly like what he was – a tired, old musician performing his three hundred billionth gig in front of a crowd of foreigners piled in to see what they regarded as a grizzled myth of a man playing for what could be the very last time – and not piss everyone off for being so completely nonchalant about the whole thing.
And it was while watching him play that I realised what caused the crowd’s blissful silence. The thing about blues is that (in my humble opinion) you’ve either got it or you don’t. It’s not so much a talent as a personality trait: somewhere within every person who acknowledges music’s existence lies that pure voice, that one pathway that exhales the aural element of your soul. Sometimes, if you really want it, you can successfully deceive yourself and others; Madonna thought she could rap, Pink Floyd thought they were deep and plenty of white people seriously try to play funk to this day. But a charade like that is impossible in blues; a good blues singer bares his soul when he opens his mouth, no matter how inane the lyrics are, for his voice must carry more than words.
Regardless of whether you’ve understood a word of what you just read or not, Honeyboy Edwards definitely had ‘it,’ , but to hear ‘it,’ you have to listen very closely (hence the silence), and once you actually do hear the ‘it’ in Honeyboy’s voice, you are generally left too speechless to say anything anyway.
The only thing stopping me from catching anything more than a fleeting glimpse of what I sought was that damn harmonica player with the hat, who turned out to be none other than Michael Frank, President of Earwig Records and a band mate of Honeyboy since 1975. His over-amplified, overeager and generally annoying performance cluttered Honeyboy’s performance so much that it left me aching for the opportunity to hear his voice alone, untouched by the crudeness of instruments and other people.
But I had already wasted that chance. For I had spoken with Honeyboy briefly before his set, and made a complete ass of myself. A friend snuck me past the typically brutish security guards to NASA’s sorry excuse for a backstage area. After a quick introduction by our mutual friend I kneeled on the floor in front of Honeyboy, who was reclined on a couch, and conducted my ‘interview’ from this awkward position.
“How are you?”
“Um…uh, I’m good, good, yeah.”
“How does it feel to be the right person in the wrong place and wrong time?”
“Uh…heh, oh I dig, I follow you…that’s pretty funny.”
Michael Frank, the man with the hat, turned out to be just as annoying offstage as he was onstage, recalling some senseless garbage about something involving sex and Nashville, TN as I shuffled embarrassingly out of Honeyboy’s way.
After the show, determined to get him to answer at least one question, I snuck back downstairs but got summarily tossed out by a bouncer who either didn’t approve of the way I leaned against the refrigerator in the corner or who saw me steal a towel and a ton of socks I found. I walked away in silence, basking in the honour of having been completely humiliated by someone awesome. Honeyboy, not the bouncer.
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